When Tadej Pogacar slipped 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 grueling climb, it was not clear why. Pogacar’s own voice, via his team 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 as a mere mortal.
“I’m gone,” he told his team. “I’m dead.”
It was an amazing piece of television, a moment that will be repeated in every Tour de France broadcast for decades.
Most of Pogacar’s teammates did not wait for him. They didn’t try to help him. What would have been the point? There was no way to save Pogacar’s career. The 24-year-old Slovenian who usually walks with a smile on his face, always calm, with locks of hair peeking out of his helmet, was gone.
He was dead. Vingegaard quickly pulled away from him and walked away with his second consecutive Tour de France victory.
The Tour de France ended Sunday with pomp, aerial shots of the Eiffel Tower and eight furious laps on the cobbled streets of central Paris, capped off by a race up the Champs-Elysees. Vingegaard, ahead of Pogacar by 7 minutes and 29 seconds, rode calmly in the leader’s yellow jersey, sipping champagne while surrounded by his Jumbo-Visma teammates.
There were, as there always is in a three-week race, several noteworthy stories. Jasper Philipsen won four stages and proved that he is the best sprinter in the world. Thibaut Pinot rode his final Tour de France with typical enthusiasm and flair, while Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish ended their illustrious careers not with a bang but with a whimper. Hopes were dashed and the getaways were surprisingly successful.
Pogacar’s teammate Adam Yates finished a distant third, but from start to finish the Tour was all about Pogacar and Vingegaard. The decisive stage 17 and the gap between the two (the winning margin was the largest in the Tour since 2014) belies what was, until then, one of the most tense and exciting races in years.
After starting in Bilbao, Spain, three weeks ago, the Tour de France followed an unusual cadence. Instead of piling up the majority of the decisive mountain stages in the final week of the race, hard climbs were scattered everywhere, as were hilly, hard-hitting climbs full of intrigue.
It led to Vingegaard and Pogacar trading blows, heavyweights (although they look more like featherweights on bikes) brawling.
Vingegaard struck first, on the Col de Marie Blanque in the Pyrenees during stage five. Jai Hindley, a fringe contender who ultimately finished in seventh place, won the stage in a breakaway and for one day wore the yellow jersey. At the steepest part of the climb, Vingegaard pulled away from Pogacar, gaining more than a minute on his rival.
Despite Pogacar’s pedigree, winning the Tour de France in both 2020 and 2021, questions were raised as to whether the Tour was over yet. After a blistering spring season that saw him win two stage races and three of the most prestigious one-day classic races, Pogacar broke his wrist in late April and was not fully healed when the Tour began. If Pogacar couldn’t stay with Vingegaard early in the race in the Pyrenees, how would he fare in the Alps?
The next day Pogacar gave his answer. Vingegaard attempted to attack twice, dropping the field, but Pogacar stuck to his wheel. With three kilometers to go in the stage, as fans lit flares next to him, Pogacar turned the script around with a surprising counterattack and won the stage, taking back 24 seconds.
“If it’s going to happen like yesterday, we can pack our bags and go home,” Pogacar recalled thinking during one of Vingegaard’s attacks. “Luckily I had good legs today.”
Slowly but surely Pogacar cut into Vingegaard’s lead. On stage nine, at the famous dormant volcano Puy de Dome, he made up eight seconds. Four stages later, he made up another eight seconds in the mountaintop finish at the Col du Grand Colombier. Twice he launched devastating sprints near the end of the stages, and twice Vingegaard couldn’t keep up with him.
Only in hindsight, with the full results known, was it possible to see these stages in a different light. Vingegaard has traditionally been stronger than Pogacar on long mountain climbs where he can push forward, while Pogacar is a more explosive rider who shoots away with unfollowable gusts. But although Pogacar beat Vingegaard on three stages, he couldn’t bury him. Vingegaard lost a few seconds, but he didn’t let a loss turn into a win.
Vingegaard, a quiet 26-year-old Dane, first showed what would eventually become his dominant form in the race’s only individual time trial, a day before he tore Pogacar to shreds on the Marie Blanque. Starting the penultimate time trial, Pogacar was faster than the rest of the field by over a minute. He had a good day. But Vingegaard had a great day.
Starting last, Vingegaard pushed himself to his limit, taking flawless lines at incredible speeds during the downhill part of the course, showing off his climbing skills on the uphill finish despite riding a heavier time trial bike. In the end, he gained almost two minutes from Pogacar. He was so fast that he thought his equipment was malfunctioning.
“I think it was one of my best days on the bike,” said Vingegaard after the stage. “I mean at one point I started to think my power meter was broken.”
The next day, Pogacar would die, according to his own words. For two weeks, Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma team had set a relentless pace, with the aim not necessarily to help Vingegaard win stages or buy time, but rather to drain Pogacar’s energy, put his recovering wrist under pressure, so that he was sorely fatigued by the time the race reached the Alps, Vingegaard’s territory.
In the long, hot stage, Pogacar said later, the food he ate got stuck in his stomach and never reached his legs. Vingegaard never attacked. He didn’t need to. Pogacar could not stay with him at the Col de la Loze, and as soon as Jumbo-Visma saw this, Vingegaard domestic he increased the pace to ensure that Pogacar would fall further behind. He never stabilized; instead, second by second, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, he seemed to fall down the mountain.
In the 20th and penultimate stage on Saturday, Pogacar did not try to attack Vingegaard early on the Col du Platzerwasel mountain pass. He wouldn’t have made sense; he was not going to make up minutes. Instead, they climbed the mountain together, passing the opponents to the finish, where Pogacar beat Vingegaard in an uphill sprint to win the stage, a final prize, but only a consolation.
Vingegaard and Pogacar have combined to win the last four editions of the Tour de France, and neither has reached the age when cyclists typically peak. “It’s been an incredible fight we’ve had since Bilbao, and hopefully in the future as well,” said Vingegaard after securing the win for him.
The only pity is that the next episode of this fight will not take place for another year.