The gap between the two protagonists, last year’s winner Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), winner in 2020 and 2021, is a measly 10 seconds, the time it takes you to take a tissue out of your pocket and blow your nose. The smallest margin of victory in the history of the Tour is 8 seconds, Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in 1989.
But the numbers are only part of what makes this yellow jersey duel so exciting. It has been a chess match from the very start when Pogačar’s teammate Adam Yates grabbed the yellow jersey and Pogačar took 4 seconds from Vingegaard on the climb to the finish. Since then, the 24-year-old Slovenian has turned the race into a battle for bonus seconds, and Vingegaard has accepted the challenge. When Jumbo-Visma sent the indefatigable Wout van Aert into yet another mountain stage breakaway, and then allowed that breakaway a gap of almost 9 minutes, the reason surely was to ensure that no bonus seconds would be available at the finish line because Vingegaard cannot match Pogačar’s explosive speed on steep climbs.
But then he did match him – and even passed him on the way to the line, before easing up and casting a bemused, and challenging, smile at his rival. Game on, brother!
Vingegaard has held a lead over Pogačar since stage 5 when the latter faltered on the climb to the finish. Since then, Pogačar has been chipping away at that lead and took it down to 9 seconds on stage 13 when he again outsprinted his rival on the climb to the finish. But the UAE Team Emirates leader suffered a lapse of concentration near the finish of the ascent of the Col de Joux Plane (11.7 km @8.5%), after apparently being hampered by a race motorcycle and the massive crowds, and allowed Vingegaard to get the jump and outsprint him to the summit, to grab the remaining bonus seconds available. At the end of that stage, the big news was that Vingegaard had taken back 1 second (one!) in the GC race.
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“I think my first sprint was for nothing, that’s a pity,” Pogačar said after the stage. “But it wouldn’t have changed the outcome, I think. I still felt that lost effort in my legs because I could no longer sprint for the bonus. I screwed that up. But it is what it is.”
The most impressive ride on that stage, however, was the descent from the Joux Plane by the 22-year-old Carlos Rodriguez of Ineos Grenadiers. Rodriguez sprinted away from Pogačar and Vingegaard near the top of the climb and then left them, and everyone else, eating his dust on the other side of the mountain. His victory put him on the Tour podium for the first time, a massive 5 min 21 sec behind Vingegaard and 19 seconds ahead of Adam Yates. In fact, it was a very good week for Ineos Grenadiers, which also provided the winner of stage 13, the 33-year-old Michal Kwiatkowski. After his stage 14 victory, Rodriguez paid tribute to his teammate, saying he was invaluable as a domestique: “Kwiatkoski went back to the team car three times to get water for us. These details are so important.”
And in a Tour dominated by 20-somethings, it was a good week for the 30-somethings, as the 35-year-old Wout Poels (Bahrain-Victorious), long the loyal domestique, racked up his first-ever Grand Tour stage win when he took off on his own on the very steep Category 2 Côtes des Amerands (2.7 km @ 10.1%, with a ramp of 17%) and continued his solo run up to the finish at Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc (7.7 km @ 7%). This means that riders with an average age of 34 have won two of the most difficult mountain stages in this Tour.
In this closely fought duel for the yellow jersey, we have not only been entertained but we have also learned quite a bit about the two rivals. Vingegaard is guarded and not prone to giving much away, a little like his racing style, which is dogged and consistently strong. Pogačar, on the other hand, is a flamboyantly explosive rider and loves to talk. Asked after stage 15 how he felt about his chances in Tuesday’s individual time trial, he said he had “big, big confidence”, and knew the time trial “pretty good,” adding, “I hope it suits me pretty well. Let’s see after that and then it’s two stages to go full gas for the team.”
It should also be mentioned that the second mass crash of the Tour occurred on stage 15 when a spectator leaned out to take a selfie and hooked the handlebars of Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss. Kuss, teammate Nathan van Hooydonck and at least a dozen other riders crashed to the ground. Fortunately, no one appears to have been badly injured. This was reminiscent of the incident in the 2021 Tour when a woman holding a large sign with a message for her German grandparents walked into the road and clipped Tony Martin as he rode past. In the crash that followed, two riders were forced to abandon, including Marc Soler, who broke both arms. The woman responsible turned herself in and was handed a symbolic fine of 1 euro. Perhaps it’s time to protect the riders by levying stiff fines and even misdemeanour charges to any spectator whose carelessness leads to crashes and injuries in a race.