When Tadej Pogacar fell behind Jonas Vingegaard on the Col de la Loze mountain pass through the Alps on Wednesday, eight kilometers and a world away from the top of the hot and difficult climb, it was not clear why. Pogacar’s own voice, over his team’s radio and broadcast on television during the 17th stage of the Tour de France, provided an immediate explanation for the rare sight of Pogacar being left behind like a mere mortal.
“I left,” he told his team. “I’m dead.”
It was an amazing piece of television, a moment that will be repeated on every Tour de France broadcast for decades to come.
Most of Pogacar’s teammates did not wait for him. They didn’t try to help you. What would have been the point? There was no saving the Pogacar race. The 24-year-old from Slovenia, who usually walks around with a smile on his face, perpetually carefree, tufts of hair sticking out of his helmet, is gone.
He was dead. Vingegaard quickly pulled away from him and rode away with his second consecutive Tour de France win.
The Tour de France ended Sunday with pomp, aerial photos of the Eiffel Tower and eight furious laps around the cobbled streets of central Paris, culminating in a race down the Champs-Élysées. Vingegaard, ahead of Pogacar by 7 minutes and 29 seconds, lapped easy in the leader’s yellow jersey, sipping champagne whilst surrounded by his Jumbo-Visma teammates.
There were, as there always is in a three-week run, several noteworthy stories. Jasper Philipsen won four stages and proved that he is the best sprinter in the world. Thibaut Pinot rode his last Tour de France with typical verve and panache, while Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish ended their illustrious careers not with a bang, but with a groan. The hopefuls have fallen and the breakaways have been surprisingly successful.
Pogacar’s teammate Adam Yates finished a distant third, but from start to finish, the Tour was about Pogacar and Vingegaard. The decisive 17th stage and the difference between the two – the margin of victory was the biggest on the Tour since 2014 – belies what was, until then, one of the most tense and emotional races in recent years.
After kicking off in Bilbao, Spain, three weeks ago, the Tour de France has followed an unusual cadence. Instead of piling up most of the decisive mountain stages in the final week of the race, the hard climbs were scattered far and wide, as were the bumpy, intrigue-filled climbs.
This led to Vingegaard and Pogacar trading blows, heavyweight fighters (although they look more like featherweights on bikes) wrestling.
Vingegaard attacked first, on the Col de Marie Blanque in the Pyrenees, during the fifth stage. Jai Hindley, a fringe contender who eventually finished seventh, won the stage on a breakaway and for a day wore the yellow jersey. On the steepest part of the climb, Vingegaard pulled away from Pogacar, gaining more than a minute on his rival.
Despite Pogacar’s pedigree – he won the Tour de France in both 2020 and 2021 – questions were asked about whether the Tour was over yet. After an intense spring season that saw him win two stages and three of the most prestigious classic one-day races, Pogacar broke his wrist in late April and had not fully healed when the Tour started. If Pogacar couldn’t stay with Vingegaard at the start of the race in the Pyrenees, how would he fare in the Alps?
The next day, Pogacar gave his answer. Vingegaard tried to attack twice, losing the field, but Pogacar remained glued to the steering wheel. Three kilometers from the end of the stage, as fans fired flares beside them, Pogacar reversed course with a surprising counterattack and won the stage, gaining 24 seconds behind.
“If it’s going to happen like yesterday, we can pack our bags and go home,” Pogacar remembered thinking during one of Vingegaard’s attacks. “Fortunately I had good legs today.”
Slowly but surely, Pogacar reduced Vingegaard’s lead. On stage nine, climbing the famous Puy de Dome dormant volcano, he made up eight seconds. Four stages later, he made up another eight seconds on the mountaintop finish on the Col du Grand Colombier. Twice he launched devastating sprints near the end of the stages, and twice Vingegaard couldn’t stay with him.
Only in retrospect, with the full results known, was it possible to look at these stages in a different light. Vingegaard has traditionally been stronger than Pogacar on long mountain climbs where he can crunch, while Pogacar is a more explosive rider who pulls away with unfollowing bursts. But while Pogacar gained time on Vingegaard in three stages, he was unable to bury it. Vingegaard lost a few seconds, but he didn’t let the defeat turn into a thrashing.
Vingegaard, an easy-going 26-year-old from Denmark, first showed what was to become his dominant form in the race’s only individual time trial, the day before breaking Pogacar in the Marie Blanque. Starting the penultimate time trial, Pogacar was quicker than the rest of the pack by over a minute. He had a good day. But Vingegaard had a great day.
Starting last, Vingegaard lapped to his limit, making impeccable lines at unbelievable speeds during the downhill part of the course, showing off his climbing skills on the uphill despite riding a heavier time trial bike. In the end, he gained almost two minutes over Pogacar. He was so fast that he thought his equipment was faulty.
“I think it was one of my best days on the bike,” said Vingegaard after the stage. “I mean, at one point, I started thinking my power meter was broken.”
The next day, Pogacar would, in his own words, die. For two weeks, Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma team set a relentless pace, not necessarily to help Vingegaard win stages or gain time, but rather to drain Pogacar of energy, to put his healed wrist under pressure so that he was deeply tired by the time the race reached the Alps, Vingegaard’s territory.
In the long, hot phase, Pogacar later said, the food he ate got stuck in his stomach and never made it to his legs. Vingegaard never attacked. He didn’t have to. Pogacar was unable to keep up with him on the Col de la Loze, and as soon as Jumbo-Visma saw this, Vingegaard employees increased the pace to ensure that Pogacar fell further behind. He never stabilized; instead, second by second, pedal after pedal, he seemed to tumble down the mountainside.
On Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage, Pogacar made no attempt to attack Vingegaard at the start of the Col du Platzerwasel mountain pass. It would be meaningless; he wasn’t going to gain minutes back. Instead, they climbed the mountain together, overtaking the opposition all the way to the finish, where Pogacar beat Vingegaard in a sprint to win the stage – a final prize, but only a consolation one.
Vingegaard and Pogacar have combined to win the last four editions of the Tour de France, and neither has reached the age when cyclists normally peak. “It’s been an incredible fight that we’ve had since Bilbao, and hopefully in the future as well,” said Vingegaard after his victory was secured.
The only pity is that the next episode of this fight won’t happen for another year.