Tadej Pogacar Strikes Back
3:15 PM EDT on July 6, 2023
I felt a sinking sensation as I watched Jumbo-Visma dismantle Jonas Vingegaard's primary challenger for the Tour de France with brutal, unsparing efficiency on the final climbs of Stage 5. They were so determined to break Tadej Pogacar and his UAE team that they spotted Giro d'Italia winner Jai Hindley 47 seconds, a stage win, and the yellow jersey, and their gambit paid off as Vingegaard gouged Pogacar for a minute on what was not all that difficult a climb. Given Pogacar's uncertain recovery from a broken wrist, Jumbo-Visma's iron-fisted grip over the peloton, and Vingegaard's tremendous climbing form, it was hard to avoid the feeling that Vingegaard was going to fly to a second straight Tour de France title. Not so fast. The first summit finish of this all-action Tour was a fittingly wild one.
Jumbo-Visma once again played their cards well on Stage 6, sending human tractor Wout Van Aert up the road to support whatever moves Vingegaard ended up making, and successfully prying Pogacar away from his team by setting a fierce tempo on the penultimate Col du Tourmalet. The Slovenian had no choice but to accept Vingegaard's offer to dance; after looking unprepared to match his rival on the Col de Marie Blanque yesterday, Pogacar was up for it today. Van Aert led an eight-man break up the Cauterets-Cambasque, setting up Vingegaard to try an attack that unhooked everyone save Pogacar. With Hindley lagging in a group of secondary contenders, his time in the yellow jersey clearly would be a one-day cameo. Alone at the steepest part of the final climb, all that was left was for the two rivals to try and destroy each other.
As hors-categorie climbs go, Cauterets-Cambasque is a deceptive one, with long stretches of gentle three-percent, big-ring terrain serving as a prologue for the 15-plus percent ramps in the final kilometers. Just inside the three-kilometer banner, Pogacar pounced: Right as a TV motorbike zipped by the pair, Pogacar latched onto it to make his attack even sharper, and Vingegaard wasn't even close to matching him. Maybe Vingegaard's team is better, and maybe he got the better of Pogacar on Stage 5, but there's still no climber more explosive than Pogacar. The violence of it is astonishing. He wound up winning the stage, pedaling hard past the line then bowing in triumph.
For the first time in this year's race, Vingegaard seized the yellow jersey; for the first time, he has cause to worry about Pogacar ripping it away from him. Twenty-five seconds now separate the two. "We wanted to try to test him today and see how he felt,” said Vingegaard after the stage. "I suppose he felt better than yesterday." I think so, yes.
Gone are the days where the Tour's GC contenders would spend the first 11 or so racing days nervously staring at each other through a bunch of flat stages before the parcours demanded they actually race each other, which they'd still only wait until the final kilometer or so of a huge mountain stage to do. Shorter stages and smaller teams incentivize aggressive racing, as there are fewer opportunities to punish overexertions. And so from the first stage, this year's Tour has been marked by the best riders in the world trying to destroy each other, with opportunist riders like Neilson Powless and Julian Alaphilippe nestling themselves in each day's breakaway and the big teams surprising each other with bold tactics. The sprinters have spent the week grumbling about how hard it's been on them, though they're the only ones who aren't enjoying this rollercoaster of a Tour. The Tour is there for anyone willing to take it, and on Stage 6, Tadej Pogacar showed that he's still got the panache to put the more in-control Vingegaard in trouble no matter how good his team is.
It's strange, and strangely comforting, to be this entertained through the first week of a Grand Tour, and given how little we've ventured into the real mountains, I don't know what to expect from the next 15 days of racing. Hell, I'm not even convinced Hindley is cooked, and you have to expect that Ineos-Grenadiers will use the UAE vs. Jumbo chess match as an opportunity to spring something unexpected.