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Gravel, Gamesmanship and Girmay – as Pogačar Leads a Thrilling Tour

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The Tour de France has delivered lots of thrills and drama but so far few big surprises as pre-race favourite Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) takes a slim lead into the first rest day. World road race champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick Step) is second, 33 seconds behind, with Jonas Vingegaard (Visma–Lease a Bike) at 1:15 and Primož Roglič (Red Bull-BORA-hansgrohe) in fourth, 1:36 adrift.

Those gaps are not decisive but they reflect, more or less accurately, the relative forms of the four riders on the terrains they’ve so far ridden on. They have raced only one serious mountain stage to this point, Tuesday’s stage 4, which Pogačar won by 35 to 37 seconds over his main rivals.

Sunday’s stage 9 was the first-ever Tour stage with sections of gravel to negotiate, 14 in all, amounting to 32 km of the199 km route. That stage was the most chaotic of what has so far been a fairly chaotic Tour. There were flat tyres galore, a few crashes, lots of dust, and a lot of gamesmanship. And Jonas Vingegaard was forced to ride more than half the stage on the bike of teammate Jan Tratnik after the stones on one section of gravel damaged his own two-wheeler.

The gamesmanship involved Pogačar and Evenepoel who apparently teamed up in trying to force Vingegaard to race them on a stage that did not suit him. With 72 km to go, Evenepoel burst away from the peloton and was soon joined by his two main rivals. However, Vingegaard refused to cooperate, letting Evenepoel and Pogačar do all the work, and they soon slowed down and rejoined the peloton.

Later, with 22 km left to race, Pogačar burst away from what remained of the peloton on a stretch of gravel. He was quickly caught by Vingegaard’s young American teammate Matteo Jorgenson and then by Evenepoel. But Vingegaard lost ground.

Jorgenson eventually slowed to let his leader catch up and then dragged him up to the two riders in front. But the Visma riders again refused to cooperate, and the four were soon swallowed by the bunch again. After the stage, Evenepoel continued the gamesmanship, saying, “I think Tadej [Pogačar] and I were not happy with this because I think maybe the podium for the Tour could have been decided today already. We have to accept race tactics and race situations but, sometimes, you also need the guts to race. Unfortunately, maybe Jonas didn’t have them today.”

The Belgian was throwing up a lot of smoke. He knows very well that Vingegaard is not a one-day racer, as are Pogačar and Evenepoel, and that it would have been suicide for him to take up the challenge. If Evenepoel really wanted to race, he should have joined Matthieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) when he formed a group that tried, in vain, to catch the leading seven-rider breakaway and ride for the stage win. Evenepoel evidently fears Vingegaard’s strength in the mountain stages and was trying to secure a podium place for himself.

The stage was won by one of the members of that leading breakaway, Anthony Turgis of TotalEnergies, the third victory for a French rider in what has so far been a very good Tour for the home nation. It was the 30-year-old’s first-ever Tour stage victory, and a very welcome win for the team, which has gone through a long dry spell.

With about 12 km to go in the race, Lidl-Trek’s Jasper Stuyven broke away from that leading group – which included INEOS Grenadiers’ Tom Pidcock and the tireless Ben Healy of EF Education-EasyPost. He opened up a lead of 10 seconds, which looked to be holding up until Derek Gee (Israel–Premier Tech) dragged the pursuers back and caught the frustrated Belgian about 300 m from the finish line. Turgis had the best kick, just beating Pidcock to the line.

This was more bad luck for Lidl-Trek, which had seen its strong sprinter, Mads Pedersen, forced to quit the race following injuries sustained in a stage 5 crash. He went on to ride two more stages before finally bowing out. “I hit the barriers with my right shoulder,” Pedersen explained. “Our doctor said there could be a fracture that we wouldn’t be able to see for a week or so, but he said I could continue as long as the pain was bearable. Only, the team management was not impressed with my position on the time trial bike yesterday. They had never seen anything so ugly.”

After picking up the first two Tour de France stage victories by a Black African in stages 3 and 8, Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) finished a strong ninth in stage 9, adding to his growing lead in the competition for the Škoda green jersey. He now has 224 points, with last year’s green jersey winner Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceunick) at 128 and the surprisingly strong Norwegian Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X Mobility), who is not a sprinter, in third at 107.

Friday’s stage 7 ITT, 25.3 km through Burgundy wine country, from Nuits-Saint George to Gevrey-Chambertin, confirmed what we had long suspected: that Remco Evenepoel is the best time trial rider in the world, that Pogačar is in top form, that Vingegaard is not yet at his best, and that Roglič is okay but not much better than that.

Evenepoel won the stage, averaging 52.6 km/h, with Pogačar just 12 seconds behind and Roglič and Vingegaard finishing third and fourth, at 34 and 37 seconds, respectively. That was the world champion’s first-ever Tour stage victory. He now trails the new record-holder, Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan), by only 34.

The race was marred by news of the death of rider André Drege during Saturday’s stage 4 of the Tour of Austria. The 25-year-old Norwegian crashed on a high-speed descent and did not survive his injuries. The tragedy occurred almost exactly a year after the death of Swiss rider Gino Mäder on a descent in the Tour de Suisse. Brege was riding for Team Coop-Repsol and had been set to move to the pro level with Jayco AlUla. All the Norwegian riders in the Tour wore black armbands in his memory on stage 9.