After a series of frantic breakaways in the final 20 km of the 172.8-kilometre 19th stage, Mohorič found himself racing for the finish line with Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) and Kaspar Asgreen (Soudal – Quick-Step) who had won the preceding stage in a similar three-man sprint. Mohorič and Asgreen hit the finish line at the same time, and while the photo of the finish was being analysed, the Slovenian sat patiently on the ground. When, at last, he was announced as the winner (by no more than 2 cm), Mohorič leapt into the air with a shout of joy and then began to weep, from relief, exhaustion and, as he would soon reveal, a wealth of other emotions.
In the interview that followed, Mohorič described in often heartbreaking terms the life of a Tour de France rider as well as the staff that supports them. He began by saying that his win “means a lot because it’s just hard and cruel to be a professional cyclist. You suffer a lot in preparations. You sacrifice your life, your family and you do everything you can to get here ready. And then after a couple of days, you realize that everybody here is just so incredibly strong that it’s just so hard to follow the wheel sometimes.” The now three-time Tour stage winner ended the interview by declaring: “I know how much it can change your life, a Tour de France win. I wish that everybody could win a Tour de France stage, but it’s just not possible. And that’s cruel.” (Every reader who loves the Tour de France and admires its riders should listen to the entire interview here.)
My second favourite moment occurred on stage 20, when the flamboyant French rider Thibaud Pinot, riding on his last mountain stage in his final Tour de France and in the region that is his home, reached the summit of the penultimate climb of the stage, the Petit Ballon (9.3 km @ 8.1%) with a 20-second lead on a group of pursuers and more than 1 minute ahead of the peloton. The roar of adulation that greeted and followed him as he raced on gave this onlooker goosebumps, and it surely more than made up for the fact that Pinot did not win a stage in his final Tour.
It was a Tour de France that both inspired and deserved such moments, one that will be long remembered for the intensity of the racing, the many surprises and dramatic shocks and especially, the uncompromising duel between the two riders who were head, shoulders and hips above the rest. For 15 stages, the gap separating Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) was counted in seconds until the Dane’s remarkable time trial on stage 16, in which he surprised even himself. “I was feeling great today,” he said after that decisive victory, in which he beat his rival by 1 min 38 sec. “I didn’t expect to do that well.”
The final blow came on the very next stage, the Tour’s queen stage, and on the steep slopes of the hardest climb of the race, the Col de la Loze (28.1 km @ 6%), the kind of climb that suits Vingegaard but not Pogačar. The 24-year-old Slovenian cracked surprisingly early, with more than 8 km remaining in the ascent. “I’m gone,” he told his team radio. “I’m dead.” No one was more surprised than Vingegaard who kept looking down the slope and seemed uncertain about what to do. He might have thought that Pogačar had crashed and perhaps thought that he should wait for him, as is the etiquette among yellow-jersey rivals. But no, Pogačar simply ran out of gas. He finished the stage in 22nd place, 7 min 37 sec behind the winner, Felix Gall (AG2R-Citroën), and nearly 6 minutes behind Vingegaard.
But the race for the yellow jersey was probably decided on April 23 when Pogačar broke his wrist in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège. As a result, he lost a lot of training time and had almost no competitive racing in the run-up to the Tour. That would account for his rare and sudden loss of form. He came back to win stage 20, in typical Pog style, and reclaim some of his mojo but the Tour was lost. “I didn’t notice that I wasn’t me,” Pogačar said later. “I was going day-by-day, and I was just feeling worse. On Col de la Loze, I don’t have an explanation really, I think everybody experiences something like this in their career.” And he was certainly correct when he said, “I just cracked [by] myself, nobody else cracked me.”
Until that point, the two warriors had given us a dramatic duel in one of the most dramatic Tours ever run, thanks in part to the non-traditional route drawn up by ASO, the organizers. It reminded us, if reminding we needed, why the Tour is the most-watched sporting event in the world, with an estimated 3.5 billion viewers.
But there were many contributors to the spectacle. The Yates twins, Adam (UAE Team Emirates) and Simon (Jayco–AlUla), for example, who raced for and against each other and finished third and fourth, respectively, in the GC. And the 25-year-old Austrian Gall who surprised us and himself by staying with the best on some climbs and who won that brutal queen stage. “I am amazed at what I am capable of in this Tour,” Gall said after that stage. And there was Giulio Ciccone (Lidl-Trek) who won the King of the Mountains jersey with consistent climbing, a very supportive team and a perfect plan.
But as Mohorič suggested in his impassioned interview, every rider who started three weeks ago in Bilbao – whether they hauled water and food for the team, seemed to be in every breakaway, like Victor Campenaerts (Lotto-Dstny), or provided cover from the wind for their leaders – deserves a yellow jersey for helping to make this Tour an unforgettable sporting event.