The French word for winner is vainqueur, which comes from the same Latin root as vanquished. This feels apt, as Tadej Pogačar vanquished all beneath him on the slopes of the Col de la Couillole on stage seven of Paris-Nice on Saturday.
This is how I was going to begin my piece on the UAE Team Emirates’ rider’s apparent everlasting reign. When the Slovenian attacked with 5.5km to go on Saturday, it seemed inevitable that he would storm away into the distance, light it up in his usual style, and seal the yellow jersey at his first time at the ‘Race to the Sun’.
The last stage race that Pogačar did not win at least two stages at was the Tour of Slovenia in 2021. He just can’t not win, this was his seventh victory of the year and Milan-San Remo has not even happened yet. He might as well be declared the champion of Paris-Nice and maybe even the Tour de France already, right?
Except, it did not happen quite like that. Sure, Pogačar still went on to win stage seven – who else – but he was marked to the end by Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu, and Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard was really not that far behind. If he had not secured so many bonus seconds, Gaudu would be in the lead and Vingegaard would be hot on his heels.
It seems harder to draw grand conclusions from Saturday’s race, there was no decisive blow as stage four perhaps contained, but one thing is for sure is that the big two of Pogačar and Vingegaard, second and first from last year’s Tour de France, has been inflated to three by the performances of Gaudu over this week.
Any of the starring trio could win overall in Nice on Sunday afternoon, after they have navigated the punchy course around the Côte d’Azur which almost undid Vingegaard’s teammate Primož Roglič last year. It is no procession.
For tomorrow, it’s still not finished for any guys in the GC, because it’s an unpredictable stage,” Pogačar said. “As far as we saw today, Gaudu is one of the strongest here and my goal is just to not let him go. Also, respect the others, to not gain time. My goal is to try and finish tomorrow in yellow.”
As for all the focus on the battle between the Slovenian and Vingegaard, there is a Groupama-FDJ coloured interloper in the mix, and one which might be there throughout the year. The Tour is just as much his goal as the others. Fourth last year does not seem like his ceiling, especially after a performance like this.
“I think he’s improving every year little by little, and if he’s still not in the best shape of the year, he will win some big races this year,” Pogačar explained after his victory.
“Today, and for this whole week, I’ve been in the battle,” Gaudu said. “In my head, I’m really motivated and I don’t want to have any regrets or look back in a year’s time and think I could’ve followed him [Pogačar].
“Today, this year, this week, we’re trying to to learn how to respond to attacks and attack ourselves. I’m happy to be at this level, but there’s still stage nine, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.”
Just like on stage four to La Loge des Gardes, the Frenchman put in an attack that could have secured him the honours if he was racing anyone else than his Slovenian rival, who has never put any thought to easing off the pace or letting someone else win.
Pogačar just followed, while Vingegaard was dropped, but clung on to the pair’s coattails, only losing six seconds plus bonuses in the end.
“I wanted as few guys as possible, I wanted no surprises in the last few kilometres,” the former said. “It was just three, and Gaudu was one of the strongest, so I was just focusing not to give up when he accelerates. In the sprints, I knew I had a big chance, because I always try to do my best. I had to push really hard, and it was just enough to win the stage.”
Winning a two-up sprint i just the kind of thing the UAE Team Emirates rider is excellent at, as has been seen repeatedly. “That’s another second place to Pogačar, and the time will come when I’ll have to beat him,” Gaudu said.
Vingegaard cracked on Tuesday, but here he managed his effort wisely, knowing that better things are to come. His team think that this is his best level ever this early in the year, which bodes well for the season to come. Putting his one-on-one with Pogačar was a risk, with the psychological blows of losing a danger, but Vingegaard seemed reasonably content with his effort.
“I couldn’t follow the accelerations, so I rode my own pace,” the Dane explained. “Every time they attacked, luckily I was able to get back. Hopefully I can still get back a little bit. This is not the Tour de France yet.
“I still have some work to do for the Tour.”
Asked if if his great rival beating him again would affect him mentally, Vingegaard’s answer was definite: “I don’t doubt myself at all.”
Pogačar was kind in his appraisal of him: ” [It was] just a percentage, me and Gaudu were better than Jonas. He showed that he doesn’t give up. He didn’t explode like last time, he always came back. I think he’s growing as a rider, and he will be in better shape in July.”
One thing is certain, which is that this trio seem to be operating on a different level, at least at this race; it might be replicated throughout the season.
Fireworks might still come on Sunday’s final stage, but the peloton has been through its hardest test, one that Vingegaard, Gaudu, and Pogačar all seemed to find relatively easy.
Not all were as lucky. Watching the remnants of the peloton top the Col de la Couillole, one felt sympathy for those who looked tired, and were then told to prepare for a 20km ride back down to the valley where the buses were parked.
As one DSM rider shouted to another: “I need a f***ing shower.”