written for posterity, the Vingegaard-Pogacar fight was epic before a one-sided epilogue

The two Tour de France favorites fought an outstanding battle for two weeks, before the Dane swept away the breathless suspense on offer up to that point in two days.

Almost everything was there for Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard to make this Tour de France a legend. The two riders were ready, the peloton was ready, the public was ready. The story of this July 2023 duel, however, did not take shape at kilometer zero of the first stage in Bilbao, on July 1st, but on April 23rd. A harmless fall, not even caught on camera, sent Tadej Pogacar to the ground in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Classics season over, forced rest, preparation for the Tour truncated. The Slovenian healed himself at the speed of light to be ready in time. Era. His dancing on the bus before the first walkabout during the drivers’ presentation in Bilbao gave the impression that everything was behind him. And the sequel has long confirmed this.

It was Tadej Pogacar who shot the first arrows, in a humid and hilly Basque Country. The Slovenian tried, measured and played with Jonas Vingegaard. As if to say that he didn’t need an observation lap or a diesel start, he who had only raced two days since his injury. His bruised wrist is fine, thanks for him, we thought. We would have been entitled to the expected duel, of which we had been deprived in just one day, that of the Col du Granon, in 2022.

Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo Visma) during Stage 5 of the Tour de France, July 5, 2023 in Laruns.  (MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP)

The 5th stage in Laruns, July 5, enjoyed our certainties. With the Pyrenees placed so early in the race, we were eager to see them fight fast. The result was more violent than imagined, especially for Pogacar: 53 seconds of disbursements lost a few hectometres from the Marie-Blanque pass. First shot for the Slovenian, and someone has seen the Tour already played. “Yes, I took a good blow to the head”he confirmed.

A long illegible momentum

In contrast to Jumbo-Visma’s extreme neutrality in interviews and in the paddock, which only the jovial Sepp Kuss denied, Tadej Pogacar, his manager Mauro Gianetti and the UAE-Emirates always smiled. “The Tour is still very long”, they hammered at the gaggle of journalists eager for reactions to every arrival. It took until the next day to realize this. In the final climb of Cauterets, Komenda’s leprechaun dried Jonas Vingegaard, unable to follow the Slovenian’s lightning attack. But he didn’t explode, contenting himself with blunting the effort to concede only 24 seconds. That evening the worries of attending a race with a Vingegaard and a Jumbo-Visma without an opponent to their size, such as Chris Froome and Sky could be, flew away. The cheers of the audience in the Place de Cauterets during the attack did not deceive: Tadej Pogacar could defend himself, the duel would take place and the outcome would be uncertain.

The prospect of a high-level duel contrasted with another reality: that Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard would not be upset by anyone in their work. Puy-de-Dôme, on July 9, confirmed it to conclude the first week. The Auvergne sleeping giant made the whole peloton bleed, causing Thibaut Pinot to nod and zig-zag Pierre Latour, superb second that day. On the last ramps of an exhausting stage but which was not the expected festival, Tadej Pogacar once again unhooked Jonas Vingegaard, but the latter never let go. At that moment the momentum was in favor of the Slovenian and everyone was whispering that he had definitely devoured the Dane’s brain.

Jonas Vingegaard resists more than well against Tadej Pogacar in the Col de Joux plane, July 15, 2023. (BERNARD PAPON / AFP)

The second week was a transition where the two scarecrows remained in the wheels, leaving opportunists Pello Bilbao and Ion Izagirre to adorn themselves in fleeting glory, before the bosses got back to work. You intervened in the Alps, but only in fits and starts. In the wet firecracker of the Grand Colombier, Pogacar once again detached Vingegaard from the wheel, but never digging.

A mental advantage seemed to emerge quite clearly for the Slovenian, who at the start of this Tour had never given up on Vingegaard from the 9th stage of the 2021 Tour. The bike cheating in Morzine fueled the questions of an epiphenomenon: what would have happened if he hadn’t hindered Tadej Pogacar’s attack at the top? Probably not much, a few seconds at most, but no one will know.

Passy, ​​​​faced with amaro

Then came this long-awaited stage 16 time trial on July 18, which was to decide between those who definitely didn’t make it. Separated by seconds for two weeks, the two rivals had 22.4km between Passy and Combloux to create a real gap and reset the trend of the last week, the day after the last rest day. Jonas Vingegaard was ready, Tadej Pogacar a little less, and it showed. The Dane gave a supersonic performance, coming from elsewhere, which relegated the Slovenian by 1’38, an abyss over such a short distance. These twenty kilometers strike at the heart of a Tour which until then had kept all its promises, undecided by its suspense and seductive by its scenery.

Because Jonas Vingegaard’s power stroke, “best day of his life on a bike”it turned the Tour into a lone rider as much as it brought him back to questioning in the face of such a dizzying performance given his size (1.75m, 60kg). “It is not illegal to ask questions” said the director Christian Prudhomme, and nobody stopped, audience and actors of the Concert Tour. The climate of suspicion that weighed on the last week contrasted with the euphoria that surrounded the previous two. The Jumbo-Visma lineup did the after-sales service well, Jonas Vingegaard in the lead, to reassure all those concerned, the doubt was installed and would continue.

Yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) at the finish line of stage 16 of the Tour de France, the time trial between Passy and Combloux, July 18, 2023. (AFP)

The next day we asked ourselves how the Gialloneri, well rooted on the throne, would behave against a Pogacar who was undeniably hit by the slap of the day before and taken by this reduced preparation. Mercilessly, Jonas Vingegaard didn’t even have to struggle to bury his rival, who quickly freed himself in the frightening Col de la Loze and finally dropped among the others, those he eyed for two weeks in the company of the Dane. “It’s the first time I’ve seen him like this, but it’s something that will allow him to become aware of himself. Even if we are Tadej Pogacar, we can’t do everything.” he was defending Mauro Gianetti at the finish line. Jonas Vingegaard flew off without looking back, swallowing one by one the brave scattered on the steep slope.

Abysmal distances in two days

In two days the gap between the two went from 10 seconds to 7 minutes and 35 seconds. The delta appears even more immense than Pogacar which, although in defeat, evolves into another area with respect to the next, relegated to the rank of observers of a duel that has come to an end. On July 19, the evening of this seventeenth stage, the third, Adam Yates, arrived more than … ten minutes. The tenth, David Gaudu, almost twenty years old. And on the 20th, Valentin Madouas, more than an hour away. “The head-to-head battle between Pogacar and Vingegaard helped, at least until the time trial. And then, the next day, there was no more suspense”summed up Eddy Merckx on Friday, five Tours de France on the clock.

Tadej Pogacar, who must have marked this Tour with his ardor in the race and his simplicity outside, concluded it with a proud victory during the last mountain stage on Saturday 22 July, on the lands of Thibaut Pinot, but the mass had long been said. “Today I finally came back to myself. I’m super happy I was able to explode on the line like that”the 24-year-old runner replied relieved. Jumbo-Visma’s parade on Sunday, for their second consecutive coronation, was unaffected by any contestation on the course. Richard Plugge’s men executed their plan to perfection, never giving in to panic when Tadej Pogacar wanted to spoil the well-planned Dutch plan. Perhaps only they knew what would happen, arching their backs before delivering two blows.

Jonas Vingegaard has managed to transform himself into a unique pack leader, letting the storm pass before it stings, but never without one word higher than the other, nor forgetting his rival: “Pogacar can do everything: classics, shine on the flat, uphill, all the stage races. Not me, that’s why he’s better than me. I’m lucky to have been the best in the last two years”rented Sunday in Paris. “I find myself in Vingegaard’s personality, a discreet person, even modest“, depicts Romain Bardet. “Jonas was more confident than last year“, describes Jumbo-Visma performance manager Mathieu Heijboer. “Last year’s victory gave him even more confidence.”

Jonas Vingegaard in front of the peloton at the start of stage 19 of the Tour de France, July 21, 2023. (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP)

If the suspicions, legitimate but without evidence, focused this time on Vingegaard, who “understands questions” and goes so far as to admit it “it’s even good to be skeptical because otherwise it will happen again”, Not even Tadej Pogacar’s UAE-Emirates formation led by Mauro Gianetti, coach of the Saunier-Duval formation when he was excluded from the 2008 Tour due to doping, escapes doubts. For two weeks, the holy fight between the Slovenian and the Dane had almost swept her under the rug.

In the end it was to better resurface in the debates at the end and tarnish the image of this Tour, where Pogacar and Vingegaard offered a hand to hand more seen since Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck at the turn of the 2010s. “We are great rivals but I’m happy to have a rival of these things.”, greeted the Dane on the Champs-Elysées. In this breathless duel if not close to the end, Tadej Pogacar conquered the popularity that still champions, Jonas Vingegaard the right to go back up to his rival with two victories in the Tour de France. Will Act III be legendary from start to finish?

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