The Real Race At The Tour de France Is No Longer For The Yellow Jersey
3:46 PM EDT on July 7, 2021
The Tour de France is past its halfway point, and now that riders have navigated 11 stages, pounded out half of the Tour's time trial distance, and vaulted through Wednesday's ultra-grueling Queen Stage, it seems that Tadej Pogačar is almost certainly on his way to a second Tour de France win. The young Slovenian's chances of winning his second yellow jersey looked fat after he emerged from a violent first week as the luckiest of the big-time contenders, and his good fortune merely set the stage for his stunning capture of the yellow jersey in the race's first day in the Alps. Pogačar put everyone to the sword on the Col du Grand Colombier, gouging four minutes out of the surviving pre-race contenders. The image of the remnants of the day's break gawking and shaking their heads in disbelief as they watched Pogačar float past them on the slopes shows you how dominant a ride it was.
He now holds a Nibalian 5:18 advantage after today's double dip on Mount Ventoux, and barring a horrific crash or an actual act of God, he'll hold at the very least a decent cushion through the Pyrenees then crush everyone again in the final time trial. Jumbo-Visma and Ineos are both somewhat broken, and though Jonas Vingegaard actually put Pogačar in trouble on Ventoux today, he smoked the Dane on the descent and he only has one summit finish to worry about. But even if the yellow jersey is sequestered, the chase for the podium looks like it'll be a total thriller. Vingegaard is just one of six riders within 72 seconds of each other, all chasing the second and third steps on the podium. While Pogačar was consolidating his lead, this battle was taking shape. Let us meet the contenders.
Rigoberto Urán is second at 5:18, and he seems the most likely of the bunch to stand below Pogačar in Paris. Today on Ventoux, he wasn't able to follow Pogačar or Vingegaard, though he chased down all other moves and stayed lively throughout the crushing climb. Urán's support system isn't as robust as some of his rivals, but he makes up for that with experience. The Colombian has finished within the top-ten of all three Tours he's completed as a team leader, he has a fast time trial in him, and he rides with a level of ruggedness I haven't seen out of any the others. Though his Grand Tour record is one filled with near misses, it's also one defined by strong third-week performances. Given the sorts of riders he's competing with, Urán's ability to race hard every day and never truly crack sets him apart.
Sitting 14 seconds behind Urán is young Jonas Vingegaard, the first rider to give Pogačar trouble on a climb this year. The 24-year-old is a most unlikely contender, one who's started just one Grand Tour before and is only getting the leeway to pursue individual glory because most of his team has crashed out. Vingegaard entered as Jumbo-Visma's wild card, an intriguing young guy who seemed more likely to spend his time in France fetching bottles for Primož Roglič and blocking the wind for his leader than competing for himself, but with Roglič and the other premier old guys cooked, it's Vingegaard's Tour now. He is the fastest time trial rider of this striving cohort, finishing just 27 seconds behind Pogačar in the first chrono of the race, though his team has suffered some real slings and arrows thus far in France. Still, anyone who can do this to Pogačar (who said after the stage that, yes, he got owned) is a real contender for the second step on the podium.
Ecuadorian hero Richard Carapaz is only one second behind Vingegaard, and he has the twin distinctions of being the only one here who's won a Grand Tour and having the best support system left in the race. On the slopes of Ventoux, Ineos did what they've done for a decade now and rode hard in shifts until the lead group fractured into like eight dudes, half of which were Ineos riders. They probably knew that crushing Pogačar wasn't really possible, but Carapaz still wants to smoke Urán, Vingegaard, et al. Ineos entered the Tour with four potential leaders, and now that Carapaz is the only one left with a real shot at anything, he'll have some of the biggest engines in the Tour at his service.
Australian rider Ben "one champagne and one beer" O'Connor has been one of the best surprises of the Tour. He won Stage 9 by five whole minutes, putting himself within two minutes of Pogačar and looking like a likely podium candidate. Unfortunately, he was the primary victim of Ineos's screw-turning today, shedding four minutes to the pack and looking super-cooked on Ventoux. He's probably not going to compete with the three ahead of him, but it would be cool if he did, since he seems like a swell dude who's really enjoying his first Tour de France. The other two guys in this six-rider cluster are Wilco Kelderman (who I believe in) and Alexey Lutsenko (who I do not believe in). Lutsenko is the better time trialist of the two and the more prolific winner, though Kelderman has a more impressive record in Grand Tours.
One of the joys of the Tour de France is that there are always several overlapping races happening within it. The yellow jersey quest is the primary storyline, but there are also several other classifications up for grabs, plus stage honors every day. And then there are all the mini-dramas that play out in each stage, for each rider: Søren Kragh Andersen finished dead last today, though his ride to escape the time cut by a three-second margin is worth celebrating on its own terms, as is Wout Van Aert's dismantling of Trek Segafredo on Ventoux. I hope someone can give Pogačar a race, but even if not, there's plenty of intrigue.