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Tour Drama as Pogačar Takes Yellow and France Wins First Two Stages

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The 2024 Tour de France opened with more drama than Star Wars as Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) took the yellow jersey on stage 2 (as he did in the Giro d’Italia) and Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich PostNL) won his first-ever yellow jersey on a remarkable and thrilling stage 1.

In addition, French riders won the first two stages of a Tour for the first time since 1968, when 23-year-old Kévin Vauquelin gave his relegation-threatened Arkéa–B&B Hotels its first-ever Tour victory with a brave solo finale on stage 2.
Finally, defending champion Jonas Vingegaard (Visma–Lease a Bike), returning from a horrendous crash suffered less than three months ago, demonstrated that he is at least close to his best form when he countered Pogačar’s explosive breakaway attempt near the top of the brutal Côte de San Luca (1.9km @ 10.2% with ramps of up to 20%), and stayed with him until the stage 2 finish line.

That makes for a lot of drama, but these first two Tour stages, which totaled some 5,500m in climbing, were rich in suspense and great racing. The thrills started on stage 1, perhaps the hardest-ever opening Tour stage. The 206km route from Florence to Rimini included seven categorized climbs, adding up to 3,600m of climbing, and was run in temperatures on the road surface as high as 38°C (100.4°F).

The 33-year-old Bardet, who is riding in his final Tour de France, broke away from the bunch with 50km to go, and then hooked up with his 23-year-old teammate Frank van den Broek, who is riding in his first Tour and had been in a breakaway for some 170km.

With 32km left to race, the two had a lead of 2 minutes over the peloton. They worked marvelously together, van den Broek providing the power, Bardet guiding his young teammate over the remaining climbs. But with 1km left to race, their lead had dwindled to a mere 10 seconds. They redoubled their efforts as the peloton bore down on them until, 50m from the finish line, Bardet smiled, sat up and pointed at his valiant teammate as they crossed the line.

The delighted Frenchman said that he had been in a different state of mind at the beginning of this Tour than at the preceding 10 Tours he had ridden, “totally relaxed, ready to give 100% every day and not to turn over heaven and Earth if it didn’t work out.” He added that taking such a significant victory with another rider – he had won his previous three Tour stages solo – made it much sweeter.

“Today, we are sharing this jersey, which he wanted to win as much as me,” he said. “It’s the first day of his very first Tour de France, at 23 years old. … I couldn’t have done it without him. It’s pure joy.” The joy was all ours, as he and van den Broek delivered one of the great Tour stages of this century.

Wout van Aert finished third, just 5 seconds behind the winner and just ahead of Pogačar.

That heat nearly ended Mark Cavendish’s attempt to break Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage win record, as he faltered badly on the very first climb, the Colle Tre Fraggi (12.6km @ 5.4%), and continued to lose time throughout the stage. But he was well shepherded and amply watered by his Astana Qazaqstan teammates and finished 39:12 behind the winner, well inside the cut-off time that would have meant an end to his Tour.

Stage 2, 199.2km from Cesenatico to Bologna, with six short but very steep categorized climbs, looked for a long time as if it would be a much more sedate stage, with an early 11-rider breakaway, including Vauquelin, being allowed a lead of 9 minutes and never really threatened by the bunch.

Vauquelin broke away from what remained of the breakaway, Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X Mobility) and Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), halfway up the second ascent of the Côte de San Luca, and increased his lead with every pedal stroke. He crossed the line 36 seconds ahead of current King of the Mountains Abrahamsen and 49 seconds in front of another Frenchman, Quentin Pacher (Groupama-FDJ), winning his first Tour stage on his first appearance in the race and giving France a rare dream start to its home race.

“It’s completely crazy,” he said on Eurosport after the stage. “I’m really happy. It was a perfect day. It’s the first Tour de France stage for Arkéa and I’m delighted to give it to them.”

Behind him, near the top of the San Luca, Pogačar went on the attack, bursting away from the bunch with a typically explosive move. Surprisingly, only Vingegaard was able to follow. The two took turns on the front as they sped away from their main GC rivals, Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick Step) and Primož Roglič (Red Bull-BORA-hansgrohe), in what looked like an early decisive moment in this Tour.

But Evenepoel was able to close the gap on the 6km flat run to the finish line, while Roglič lost only 21 seconds. But the final gaps are not important. What must be disheartening to the two co-favorites is how easily they were left behind on a climb of less than 2km, a climb on which Roglič had beaten Pogačar in last year’s Giro dell’Emilia.

“I was way too much behind and, yeah, in the end I just couldn’t really do anything,” the 34-year-old Roglič admitted. “We’ll take it day by day. It’s only the second stage and there is still nineteen days to go.”

It was an even worse day for 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers), who finished 4:24 behind the winner. He will now be an elite domestique for either Egan Bernal, Tom Pidcock or Carlos Rodriguez, all of whom are 21 seconds behind Pogačar, and probably go for a stage win or two.

Bardet finished with the bunch, 21 seconds behind the Slovenian, and now sits fifth, at 6 seconds. He was philosophical about his brief day in the sun with the yellow jersey, saying on his team’s website: “It was a really nice day out there and to ride in the yellow jersey was a truly special experience. Right now, I’m a bit disappointed to have lost it of course, because it was only a few seconds at the line, but I tried to give everything, and the team did a really good job to support me all day.”

Pogačar is currently tied in terms of time with Evenepoel, Vingegaard and the surprising Richard Carapaz (EF Education–EasyPost) and will be wearing the yellow jersey on the basis of his better placements in the first two stages.
As Roglič said, there are 19 stages left to run. If they’re anything like the first two, this will be a doozy of a Tour de France.