The riders tell the story with their faces. The victor floats off up into the sky wearing a rictus of gnarled effort, focusing so hard on turning over the pedals that he seems to forget all composure. The chaser is visibly shellshocked, recovering from his efforts in solitude on the side of the mountain. The vanquished leader, all smiles before the final climb of the day, hangs his head in exhaustion. The most exciting stage the Tour de France has treated us to in years ends with a baptism of pain for all who make it up the Col du Granon Serre Chevalier, setting up what is sure to be a thrilling final week of racing.
Four and a half spiky kilometers from the summit of the Col, Jonas Vingegaard delivered a blow that few thought anyone could land. The lanky Dane finally cracked Tadej Pogacar with a searing attack, eventually catching the remnants of the breakaway, winning his first ever Tour de France stage, and snatching the yellow jersey off Pogacar’s shoulders only a few days after the Slovenian champ put his own imprint on the race. Before Vingegaard’s body blow on Stage 11, Pogacar had never truly been gapped at the Tour. Pogacar resisted every assault on his position, though mostly he attacked before anyone else could and cemented his dominance by insisting on going first. He rode with such panache that commentators questioned whether he even could be broken. Vingegaard answered that question in the strongest way possible. Pogacar even warned the world a day before the Granon that Vingegaard was the world’s best climber, yet nobody expected him to smoke Pogacar by 2 minutes and 52 seconds with one of the best high-altitude displays of all time.
Vingegaard’s career-defining victory was a tactical masterwork. Jumbo-Visma have established themselves as the strongest team in the race by an order of magnitude. Primoz Roglic has been acting as the world’s best support rider after he fell out of general classification contention early; Wout Van Aert’s been busy winning stages, acting as a personal bodyguard for Vingegaard, and joining breaks seemingly for fun; Sepp Kuss has spent his time calmly tempoing up daunting climbs. Pogacar, on the other hand, has lost his second-best helper to COVID-19 and his actual best helper is still in the race despite a positive test. On Wednesday, Roglic and Vingegaard baited Pogacar into covering a flurry of feints on the penultimate Col du Galibier. Without teammates to mark attacks for him, Pogacar eagerly burnt his own matches trying to contain moves that were only designed to sap his energy before the real attack. “It was too many attacks and I was maybe stupid, maybe I should have laid back on the Galibier,” Pogacar said after the race. “I was really good on the Galibier, and I paid the price on the Granon.”
Rather than rest or even have a chill day on the road to follow up the huge summit finish, riders had to race up three hors-categorie climbs the very next day and finish atop the famed Alp d’Huez. Tom Pidcock won, and though there was once again a selection among GC contenders, nobody in the Top 10 picked up any serious time. Pogacar is never one to back off from any possible challenge, and he launched a handful of attacks at Vingegaard on the Alp d’Huez. None of them stuck, though he made a point of winning the GC group sprint, less to win serious time back and more as a statement of intentions. Pogacar may have blinked for the first time, but he is not going away without a fight. Jumbo can put him under the microscope all they want, and he’ll welcome the pressure. Pogacar’s temperament on the bike is fiery. Even when leading the race, he’s never been content to sit back and defend. He’d rather spit and fight and stick his elbows out, which makes him the most fun challenger Vingegaard could have. After Vingegaard’s huge win, Pogacar seemed genuinely stoked for his rival.
Vingegaard’s huge day earned him the yellow jersey, and after the two summit finishes, he has a 2:22 gap over Pogacar, with four other riders between Pogacar and David Gaudu in seventh at 4:07. That’s a substantial margin, especially when Vingegaard has such a strong team. But part of having the best team and the leader’s jersey is the onus of doing work. Vingegaard has to play defense in the mountains, of which many remain. The race will soon shift from the Alps to the Pyrenees, a mountain range that has hosted multiple Pogacar stage wins. Two summit finishes, another difficult mountain stage, and a time trial still stand between Vingegaard and Paris, and there will be plenty of opportunities for revenge. The fight is just getting started.