The winning moment? Everyone thinks it’s the time trial stage and that’s clearly an obvious point. But the whole point of a review is to look back with the benefit of hindsight and look for the signs. Sure it could be on the road to Bastogne in Liège one Sunday in April but that’s casting too wide. Instead we could see right from the start how Jonas Vingegaard wanted to wear Tadej Pogačar down, take Pike Bidea where he shook his head at Pogačar to say he wouldn’t do a turn and take him to the finish, see the Marie Blanque where Vingegaard took time. Remember the Joux-Plane where Vingegaard kept Pogačar’s attack in range? Or Le Bettex where he closed him down right away?
Gino Mäder’s death in the Tour de Suisse was a tragedy several times over, a promising rider, a seemingly banal accident, it left many questions about racing down long mountain passes for our entertainment. If we subscribe to the idea that a grand tour reflects its host nation, then going into the race there was plenty more to be sombre about. A spring of political protests had subsided but not the frustration behind them; riots were erupting in cities in response to the killing of a 17 year old by a policeman. Only all of that faded away, at least for those on the inside of July’s ivory Tour.
The Basque start helped things get off a festive start, scenic countryside and coastal views with a fervent public, thousands of ikurrina flags. The climb of Pike Bidea told us plenty, even if we didn’t know it at the time as Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar marked each other, Victor Lafay was up there and the Yates brothers rode away, with Adam getting the better of Simon for the stage win but the day also saw Richard Carapaz and Enric Mas crash out, orphaning their teams for the next three weeks. The next day saw Victor Lafay attack under the flamme route to thwart Wout van Aert’s quest for a stage win and with hindsight this would be the closest he’d get.
The stage from Dax to Nogaro was majestic for its tardiness, a day when nobody attacked at the start and a sprint on the Nogaro racing circuit where more crashed than in the streets of Bayonne and Bordeaux combined and Fabio Jakobsen’s crash probably denied us a sprint rivalry. Regardless of the venue each time Jasper Philipsen came up trumps thanks to help from Mathieu van der Poel who was less sprint train and more snow plough as he barged through the peloton. Philipsen quickly took a commanding lead in the points competition which he’d keep to Paris, the others seemed to be going for intermediate sprints just in case Philipsen.
The Pyrenees came early this year and were a first course. Jai Hindley managed to infiltrate the big breakaway and duly got himself in the yellow jersey and what seemed like a headstart on the race for the third step of the podium on what was a brilliant day’s racing but with so many highlights since the day’s faded into background. If the Pyrenees were an entrée this didn’t stop Jonas Vingegaard from tucking in, he attacked on the Col de Marie Blanque, apparently this wasn’t part of the plan but he felt like testing his arch rival and over the pass he took half a minute and doubled this on the descent. Suddenly the story was Pogačar was short of form and the Tour was over.
The next day Jumbo-Visma tried to crack Pogačar again only he coped with all they could throw at him and on the final climb to Cambasque put in such a big attack that you wondered if there were skidmarks from his tires on the tarmac. Pogačar won the stage, took 28 seconds on Vingegaard and yesterday’s headlines were binned although this was the day Vingegaard took yellow.
Limoges was a day of ups and downs for the sprinters, Mads Pedersen with the ups thanks to a climb to the finish line that gave him an advantage over the field but downs with Mark Cavendish crashing out, a banal fall in the peloton ended his Tour just the day after he’d been so close in Bordeaux and looked like a challenger for a win in Moulins and That Record. Steff Crass was also out of the race after a spectator stood in the road.
The Saint-Léonard to Puy de Dôme stage was dripping in history and nostalgia, they could have had the TV coverage in black and white. But for the peloton it was just another stage and a summit finish. The day’s breakaway formed quickly and it was allowed to get a big lead. Matteo Jorgenson made a long range solo move but was overhauled on the final climb by Michael Woods in a strange summit finish without the crowds, the allez! allez! audio soundtrack of July muted and without it you realise this sound is so essential to the experience of watching the Tour. Behind Pogačar and Vingegaard demonstrated how superior they were to the rest. If you can remember your Newton and F=ma then seeing these two accelerate so hard on the steep climb showed their abundance of force while the GC outsiders just had to stay seated and winch their way to the finish. For all the energy spent Pogačar gained a few more seconds.
The stage to Issoire was another highlight, attacks from the start including Jonas Vingegaard sliding into the breakaway with Pogačar following him and then hours of action before Pello Bilbao won.
After a sprint interlude in Moulins for Philipsen fourth win, we got another corker of a stage in the Beaujolais, hours of action as the break tried to form. It was the only stage where Mathieu van der Poel came out to play and his attack of the Col de la Croix Montmain dynamited the breakaway with Matteo Jorgenson and Thibaut Pinot chasing, only for Ion Izagirre to tow others across in what looked like a last pull for Guillaume Martin only he kept going and was away for a solo stage win in Belleville. The Grand Colombier saw a win for Michał Kwiatkowski and Tadej Pogačar taking more time on Jonas Vingegaard, closing into just nine seconds. This was as close as he’d get.
If the Pyrenees were lite this year, the Alps were full fat. The stage to Morzine started with a big crash before the first climb and once the race resumed, Romain Bardet would crash out. Jumbo-Visma chased the breakaway all day, this was their tactic throughout the race. There were no coups, no ambushes, instead they just kept applying pressure every day, using the whole team to ride hard and wear down their rivals UAE and the rest of the field too. UAE are a much improved team and the recruitment of Adam Yates made all the difference, he was there at moments in the race when Pogačar needed him. Take the Joux-Plane where Jumbo-Visma were out of riders and with a nod of the head Pogačar go Yates to take over the pace, then moments later attacked. Vingegaard couldn’t or wouldn’t respond but kept the gap close and as Pogačar kept looking back he could see he wasn’t away. The two ended up marking each other which allowed Carlos Rodriguez to close the gap. Pogačar tried attack Vingegaard again as they approached the Col de la Joux-Plane arch with its 8-5-2 second time bonuses. Launching with 500m to go he was blocked by a TV and press photo motorbike in his path, themselves unable to accelerate in the moment because of the crowd. They should have been well ahead but weren’t and the crowd spilling into the road was a compounding problem. It seemed heated in the moment but with hindsight didn’t alter the result but no matter the outcome, spectators and media alike shouldn’t interfere with the racing. Easy to type, harder to guarantee.
The danger is seeing the crowd as a bad thing. For the most part it’s fantastic and what separates out the Tour from every other race. Watch the Tour de Wallonie at the moment and it’s like you’ve muted the sound by accident, a silent movie instead of a roar. Only the Tour of Flanders gets close and that’s for one day. The problem is how to prevent the 0.0001% of fans who cross a line, literally sometimes as they step into the path of the riders. You can run as many ads on TV as you like but they’re preaching to the converted, it’s reaching the people who don’t think. Maybe some kind of viral video for social media could work, mocking the hunt for a selfie but even then you can’t reach everyone, and if you could, stop them from being carried away in the moment. Anyway Carlos Rodriguez won the stage, surging away just as the descent started and with Adam Yates unable to get him back; if Ineos had sent their A-team to the Giro then two stage wins was decent. And as much as Pogačar could attack, Vingegaard finished the day with a one second gain on GC.
Wout Poels won the next day and a score draw for Pogačar and Vingegaard but this time if they crossed the line together it was telling Pogačar barely had the jump on his rival, the Dane breezed across. Based on this alone Vingegaard got the nod for the 22.4km Combloux time trial but more a tie-breaker pick as the story so far was how the pair were inseparable. Only the Dane blew the doors off.
The chart here shows the average speed for each rider on Stage 16. Last rider Alexis Renard crashed at the start and finished sore, with what would be a broken ankle, averaging 31km/h. It’s important to note this chart is not a distribution of athletic ability in the peloton. For many riders this day was a second rest day, a 40 minute effort to get out of the way. Towards the right you can see the riders who were suited to the course, up for a maximal effort and going for it. The third last bar is Wout van Aert, four seconds quicker than Pello Bilbao. Then you can see Pogačar well clear of the field, then Vingegaard well clear of him, the pair were so far ahead of the rest yet here big gaps between them.
Vingegaard’s crushing time trial win brought out the annual doping discussions – we don’t get them at Paris-Nice or the Eneco Tour – but these are more case studies in epistemology. It’s also a Rohrschach test that often tell us more about accuser or defender than the substance of the matter. Vingegaard visibly took the descent fast bordering risky but this can contribute to explaining part of his speed but it is not proof of being clean. Similarly being faster is not proof of doping either. Finishing 99th or 101st isn’t proof of doping nor cleanliness either. But winning does invite all the questions and aspersions and we see to have this every July, it’s as much a part of the race as riding past sunflowers.
Jumbo-Visma want to imitate Team Sky in many ways and alas they copy the tendency to ride headlong into a media relations trap in July, despite it happening every year, despite flashing warnings signs marked “TRAP”. Still, in they go, and this time tried to dig themselves out by taking potshots at rival teams, as if accusing Groupama-FDJ of sinking a beer on a rest day is going to win the public over. So much of this can be avoided: get Christophe Laporte in front of a TV camera every day. Have Vingegaard filmed cycling around his second home in Annecy in June extolling the virtues of France. Obviously this neither proves or disproves anything, but the Tour is not a court of law, it’s about appealing to the crowds and building up a stock of sympathy for a waiting public who didn’t tune in for Vingegaard’s Dauphiné festival. Similar ideas to apply to other contenders next summer.
Pogačar socked it to everyone but Vingegaard in the time trial but as the first loser the crowd warmed to him. Once an unknown quantity whose disconcerting ease on the bike, like his attack on the Col de Romme in 2021, had seen him on the receiving end of suspicion (Matxin, Gianetti, even being Slovenian was a tell-tale sign for some), now he’d become Tadej Poulidar as the plucky loser.
The Col de la Loze further boosted Pogačar’s stock of sympathy, and the Loze’s legend, as he cracked. Up ahead Felix Gall won the stage, attacking to take a solo win ahead of Simon Yates on a day when several top-10 riders on GC got away in the break. Gall was one of the revelations of the Tour, although he’d done so well in the Tour of the Alps that he was pulled from starting the Giro so he could target the Tour, and picked up a Tour de Suisse mountain stage win just riding away à la pédale. Ag2r Citroën were rightly proud of this with DS Julien Jurdie saying he’ll get another tattoo. But it’s the minimum the team should do given a decent budget €24 million, with no resources spent on house sprinter and riding their central event of the year. Vingegaard extended his lead but even he felt the finish, creeping over the line in Courchevel while Pogačar lost almost six minutes.
The stage to Bourg-en-Bresse saw the race leave the mountains and had sprint written all over it but the breakaway made it, a triumph in the moment for Kasper Asgreen but also a lesson that if riders do go up the road on a flat stage then maybe they can win so it’s worth a try. However the more rational angle is to try this in the third week of a grand tour. The following day to Poligny was probably the wildest of all stages with no downtime and a photofinish needed to separate Matej Mohorič and Kasper Agsreen.
Here it’s worth dwelling on just how good so many stages were. The course helped, terrain to encourage breakaways and shorter distances. This year’s course even had short transfers. Yes there were some sieste stages but these provide both the sprint and the recovery, on the stage to Nogaro UAE’s riders had a game to see who could have the lowest power output of the day which means the next day everyone’s ready to go again. Plus you have the world’s best riders all aiming to be in peak form, nobody dropped in for experience to pad out the team and it all contributes to making the Tour a product that’s so compelling it left June’s Netflix series looking even more contrived.
The final weekend saw a dash around the Vosges to Le Markstein. It could have been the final showdown to settle the overall. Instead it was the Thibaut Pinot adieu stage as he put in a great ride to delight the crowds, a symbiosis of euphoria. You can argue if he’d moved later on the Petit Ballon he might have got the stage win, just as you can argue he should have won more in his career but that misses the point, to see the communion with the public is the proof. At the finish Tadej Pogačar also got a consolation stage win. If the Paris stage is the most formulaic of them all it still threw up a surprise with Jordi Meeus taking his first World Tour win.
An enthralling Tour, there were so many days of great sport with end to end action for hours. The yellow jersey competition was exciting and the suspense lasted until the third week. When it was a duel it was good, yet not perfect as Vingegaard was in yellow within a week and kept it. Pogačar had moments in the ascendency but always as a challenger, never the leader. It would have been even better to see the overall lead change as often the fortune of the pair and for this to last until the Markstein, that would have made it a vintage for the ages. But once Vingegaard delivered his uppercut in the Combloux TT and a woozy Pogačar got knocked out on the Col de la Loze the contest was settled. The race for third place felt like less of a battle with Adam Yates the best of the rest but all the while playing the role of helper, a caddie ending up third on the clubhouse leaderboard. There was so much more than the overall and the racing didn’t stop thanks to continued lively stages and for once, a satisfactory ending to the mountains competition with Guilio Ciccone chasing points and getting his reward.
If Eurosport-GCN want to fill the schedules on a wet weekend in November they could do worse than replaying stages like Laruns, Cambasque, Issoire, Belleville, Morzine, St Gervais, Courchevel, Bourg-en-Bresse and Poligny. At the end of the year this blog traditionally picks five highlights from the season, the hard part will be picking among them and finding other races for the sake of balance.
As a product the Tour really stands alone. The world’s best riders, the height of summer, huge crowds. This gigantism is also a challenge, the festive crowds are increasingly interfering in the racing, it’s something to fix because more will come next year. Already 2024 can’t come soon enough with the prospect of a unique Tour starting in Italy and finishing in Nice, the hope of a fully fit Pogačar and a capable Evenepoel on the start line too.