There was a moment, 3.8km to go on stage four of Paris-Nice, when Tadej Pogačar turned to the camera and smiled sweetly, while following Jonas Vingegaard’s wheel.
This wasn’t a flat, easy run-in, this was part way up the first category climb of La Loge des Gardes, 6.8km at 7%, the first time that he has been up a first category climb at the race, and yet Pogačar was having fun.
Moments later, the UAE Team Emirates rider dropped Jumbo-Visma’s Vingegaard, and never looked back. He went on to catch Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu, kept the pace high, and then sprinted to the line. First Paris-Nice summit finish, first stage win.
It would be easy to read too much into this result, the first time the elite duo of Pogačar and Vingegaard have raced each other up a climb in a stage race since last summer’s Tour de France, where the latter put significant time into the former on multiple occasions. This does not mean Vingegaard is finished, or that Pogačar already has the Tour sewn up.
However, it is a psychological blow. Neither the Dane or the Slovenian have been beaten in 2023 when it matters, with Vingegaard on five wins and Pogačar on six. For the UAE Team Emirates rider to put 43 seconds into his Jumbo-Visma rival on the first significant climbing test of the race, possibly of this year, must seriously boost his confidence, and drain Vingegaard’s.
This might go some distance to erasing the memory of the Col du Granon and the Hautacam last summer, both times when Pogačar cracked, showed his weakness on the grandest stage for the first time of asking. The boot is now on the other foot.
The narrative keeps on building, and will keep going until Bilbao at the beginning of July, or even Paris at the end of it. This could be step one of the 24-year-old’s comeback.
Despite Jumbo-Visma’s mastery of the team time trial on Tuesday, Pogačar now has a lead of 44 seconds over his Danish peer, although it is just 10 seconds on Gaudu, his nearest competitor.
“Today was really nervous all day. It was already really tough on the flat parts with the crosswinds. It was really chaos all day,” Pogačar said post-finish. “Then on the final climb, Felix [Großchartner] did a really good job and the team before, in setting me up in the perfect place. I had good legs. I knew that we couldn’t give Gaudu too much. I decided to go all-in to catch him, otherwise we wouldn’t win.
“It was not in my mind to take yellow today but you don’t say no to yellow. I’m happy with yellow and it’s nice to be back.”
Asked if he was surprised to see Vingegaard drop away on the climb, the UAE Team Emirates rider said: “Yeah, a little bit. First he launched the attack and I thought he was feeling super, super great so I didn’t counter. I was just waiting for the rest. In the end, it was really tough and I think he just missed a little bit to catch me, and then he couldn’t close and he cracked a little bit.”
First real opportunity, first blow to the baby-faced assassin, who has shown all week that he is up for the fight, sprinting for bonus seconds at any opportunity. Without them, his lead over his Jumbo-Visma competitor would be just 24 seconds, and he would trail Gaudu by 14.
With 4.2km to go, Vingegaard attacked off the front of group of leaders, followed by Pogačar; this is when it looked far too easy for the pair, but they were then reeled in. It then could have been a day for Gaudu, who pushed off the front alone, but he was devoured by Pogačar, as so many often are.
“It was a complicated day today. It was windy, it was tense, it was nervous. I was able to count on a great team today so I was never too worried,” the Frenchman said.
“I wasn’t able to follow the first attack on the climb. I think everybody had the same reaction as me: let them do their show out in front, while behind we’ll see who’s strongest. But after that, I was able to recover and then I thought, ‘why not have a go?’ You need to anticipate them.
“I saw nobody was on my wheel when I attacked and then I just tried to hold on when Pogačar came up. He was too strong in the sprint but I was still a second behind Pogačar. It’s sure that there aren’t huge chances of beating Pogačar and Vingegaard in a summit finish, so you have to take opportunities when they come.
“This was a good first test, but we have to stayed focused but there’s a big summit finish still to come. I’ll try to recover.”
As Gaudu points out, this was just the first test in a week of action, with Saturday and Sunday’s stages around Nice providing more intrigue. Vingegaard will be looking to strike back, Pogačar will have the advantage of time, and seemingly legs, and Gaudu will be there, waiting.