Opinion: Pogačar vs. Vingegaard Is Already the Tour’s Greatest-Ever Rivalry

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

If you think that the rivalry between the two-time Tour de France winners Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is something special, you’re correct. In the long history of the Tour, there has never been anything quite like this mano-a-mano, involving two riders so equally matched and so superior to everyone else in the peloton. This rivalry was the most memorable part of the 2023 Tour, a sporting event that boasted more drama than a Shakespeare play.

There are sure to be some Tour connoisseurs who will cite the rivalry between the five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil and the so-called Eternal Second, Raymond Poulidor. The two French riders are indelibly linked in cycling history because of the duels they fought in the Tour, especially in 1964, when Anquetil won the yellow jersey by a mere 55 seconds. But they faced each other only four times in the Tour, with Poulidor finishing second to Anquetil only that one time.

Vingegaard and Pogačar have already raced against each other three times in the Tour, with the Dane winning the last two editions and finishing second in 2021, and Pogačar finished second the last two years. That is already unique in the annals of the Tour – and they are only 24 (Pogačar) and 26 (Vingegaard) years old. If we are lucky, we get to watch them race against each other with sound and fury for another five years. Vingegaard is looking forward to it too. “I really enjoy the rivalry with Tadej,” he told Eurosport after the race finish in Paris. “It’s been an amazing fight we had all the way from Bilbao to Paris. I think it’s good for cycling, it’s good for me, it’s good for Tadej. We challenge each other. We make each other better.”

The Dane has also called Pogačar “the best bike rider in the world” because “he is a complete rider.” Vingegaard is right. Pogačar is at all the dances – Monuments, Classics and the Tour de France – while Vingegaard has only one primary objective: winning the Tour de France. That gives him an advantage. It certainly did this year because the broken wrist Pogačar suffered in the Liège–Bastogne–Liège in April deprived him of vital training time and race readiness. Vingegaard, on the other hand, said that he and Jumbo-Visma began preparing for the 2023 Tour not long after the 2022 Tour ended. “I had a perfect winter,” he said. “I am in the form of my life.”

The question Pogačar needs to ask himself is if it is worth trying to win everything if that means not winning the Tour. He is one of the greatest one-day riders of all time and he is also a superlative Grand Tour rider but is he so good that he can race all spring and then beat Vingegaard in July? That ambition, to dance every dance and win every race, is one of the differences between the two riders. (Yes, Vingegaard will race in the Vuelta, but I think it will be to support teammate Primož Roglič.)

Vingegaard and Pogačar
In the long history of the Tour, there has never been anything quite like this mano-a-mano. © Profimedia

There have been numerous suggestions, from former riders and pundits, that if Pogačar wants to win the Tour again, he must reduce his workload in the spring.  The latest such comment came from the recently retired Sep Vanmarcke, who said, “Winning the Tour of Flanders two or three more times will contribute less to his palmares than [winning] the Tour one or two more times.”

In personality too the two men couldn’t be more different. Pogačar is an entertainer who loves playing to the crowd. He has charm, charisma and panache. He is a swashbuckling rider whose explosive accelerations on a climb thrill all cycling fans. We want him to win because his style is what we want our style to be: audacious, flamboyant, daring. Social media love him, and he loves social media.

I think it is significant that the first thing Vingegaard does after every stage and race is to seek out his wife and young daughter. You get the feeling that he sees cycling and winning the Tour as, first and foremost, a job to support his family. He is a consummate professional, training to the max, following team schedules and orders, rarely improvising. This was clear when Pogačar cracked about 8 km from the top of the Col de la Loze, and Vingegaard seemed unsure of what to do. The plan had no doubt been for him to go on the attack much closer to the summit, and he now seemed at a loss.

That stage was tailor-made for him because he can climb all day at the same rapid, implacable pace, and the longer and steeper the climb, the greater his chances. Pogačar needs shorter climbs to exploit the speed advantage he has over his rival. That gives the Dane a big advantage because you gain and lose more time over a long climb than you do on a short ascent. Vingegaard took more than 7 minutes off Pogačar on the Col de la Luze while Pogačar gained only seconds when he beat him in a stage. In 2022, Vingegaard used the same strategy to win the yellow jersey, dropping Pogačar on the Col du Granon and gaining nearly three minutes on his rival. And if he hadn’t gifted the victory to teammate Wout van Aert, Vingegaard would have won that year’s time trial as well.

In fact, despite all the commentary about Vingegaard’s surprising dominance in the 2023 Tour, the time gaps to the also-rans were similar to last year. In 2022, Vingegaard finished 13 min 39 sec ahead of the fourth-place finisher (David Gaudu); this year the margin to the fourth-placed Simon Yates was 12 min 23 sec. The big difference this year was that Pogačar was not fully fit.

Will the Slovenian reduce his spring schedule to devote the year to winning the Tour? Probably not, perhaps because he is modelling his career on that of Eddy Merckx who rode as many races as he could (apparently because of the money). Will Pogačar ever win the Tour de France again? Maybe. He is only 24 and can only get better. At 26, Vingegaard’s upside is probably more limited; in any case, it’s hard to imagine him racing better than he did this year. Whatever the future holds, we are the winners because, barring accident or illness, we can look forward to many years of the greatest rivalry the Tour de France has ever seen.