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Cycling

We Might Have A Real Fight On Our Hands

Marco Bertorello/Getty Images

With one kilometer of pain left on Stage 7 of the Tour de France, Lennard Kämna flew under the red kite with a 45-second gap on the peloton. Kämna paced himself well at the foot of the climb, dropped everyone with ease, and rode a steady tempo up the foreboding slopes of La Super Planche des Belles Filles. Under almost any normal circumstance, 45 seconds in one kilometer is an insurmountable margin for even the most determined of Tour de France teams. But this climb is one of the least normal bits of terrain any rider can possibly encounter, and when the course swung upward onto its long 20-percent gradient, Kämna suddenly began to lose his battle with gravity. The smooth tarmac gave way to crunchy gravel, which seemed to shake the last of Kämna’s cool out of him. The German fought on, lurching to keep turning over his chainring, and still he might have done it were it not for the battle taking place behind him. Kämna experienced bitter heartbreak, getting caught by the Tour de France’s best two riders within the final 100 meters.

Kämna was passed first by Jonas Vingegaard, then by Tadej Pogacar, who won in the yellow jersey and took his second stage win in a row in style. The two men looked like they were riding 10 times as fast as Kämna when they made the catch, and though Vingegaard opened up the winning move with a scorching attack, Pogacar outsprinted him meters before the line, looking back at his Danish rival as he crossed the line for his second career win on this fateful climb. Poor Kämna was on the cusp of the biggest win of his career, and to lose in this fashion is about as agonizing as it gets. But the circumstances of that loss do point to the thrilling dynamic set to play out over the last two weeks of the Tour: Jonas Vingegaard might be up for mounting a real challenge on Pogacar.

The two riders are separated by 31 seconds, which is not nearly a decisive margin given how much racing we have left and how much of that racing will be spent going uphill. In fact, Vingegaard trailing his Slovenian counterpart by only 31 seconds after the Roubaix stage and the opening time trial is probably a better position than he could have hoped for a week ago. The tiny Dane excels at hour-long, high-mountain slogs, the very terrain the Tour now turns to. There are four big-time summit finishes left, including Col Du Grannon Serre Chevalier (11.3 kilometers at 9.2 percent) and Alp d’Huez (13.8 at 8.1) on back-to-back days next week.

Since winning his first Tour in 2020, Pogacar hasn’t ever fully cracked in the mountains, so it’s not like Vingegaard has a precedent to draw on here, though he caused Pogacar’s most significant wobble on Mount Ventoux last year. Also, Vingegaard didn’t surrender any serious time to Pogacar once taking over team leader duties from Primoz Roglic. The two men haven’t meaningfully gone head-to-head in a Tour de France like this before, and Vingegaard will get to do so with the full backing of the best team. UAE Emirates loaded up with helpers for Pogacar this year; they’re still not strong enough to deal with Jumbo-Visma’s experienced, fearless squadron, especially if Roglic moves over to super-domestique duties. Wout Van Aert, last seen saving Vingegaard’s ass with a thunderous ride on the cobbles, is also around to put out fires. All of this means that Pogacar has already had to do so much riding for himself, while Vingegaard had exclusively chilled behind teammates until his attack on Stage 7. That energy expenditure difference might not manifest itself for a week, but it’s real. Though Pogacar won the first round on Friday, even he had to admit Vingegaard had the legs.

Is that just more humility from the notoriously chill Slovenian champion? Probably, though he’d be justified in actually worrying about Vingegaard, especially since he can’t rely on destroying him in the time trial again. Given how excellent of a time trialist Pogacar is, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Vingegaard is almost his equal. The Dane lost two seconds to Pogacar on last year’s two time trials, and he even beat him by 25 seconds on the penultimate stage (though in fairness, Pogacar had the race sewn up by then). My point here is, Pogacar should still be the favorite, because you don’t bet against a guy who never loses, but this could be a real fight for two whole weeks, which is all fans can ask for.