Riding is Life


‘I’m gone, I’m dead’: Tadej Pogačar gives up the ghost on the Col de la Loze

The closest Tour in recent memory is not close anymore.

Marc Soler and Tadej Pogačar on stage 17 of the Tour de France. Photo: Nico Vereecken/PN/Cor Vos © 2023

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 19.07.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Any notion of “the closest Tour de France in recent memory” was obliterated on Wednesday as Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) removed all doubt and picked up a massive gap of over five minutes on Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) on stage 17. Pogačar, a two-time Tour de France champion who is still young enough to wear the Tour’s white jersey, dropped like a stone out of the GC group on the middle slopes of the unforgiving Col de la Loze, and that was that.

Vingegaard’s dominant display in Tuesday’s time trial had opened up a significant gap between the two for the first time so far this Tour, but even then, there had remained a glimmer of hope for Pogačar that perhaps the challenging mountain stage to come would offer a chance at a counterstrike. Instead, Pogačar cracked entirely.

In a rare moment of team radios adding value to the race-watching experience, viewers were given a chance to hear Pogačar in his moment of defeat on the television broadcast, as the young star got onto his radio while he was dropping out of the group containing the yellow jersey as well as Pogačar’s teammate Adam Yates.

“I’m gone,” Pogačar said to his team. “I’m dead.”

After more than two weeks of racing where Vingegaard and Pogačar seemed impossibly closely matched, the last 48 hours have seen Pogačar give way at last. By the end of the day, he had dropped down to 7:35 back on the leaderboard, with teammate Marc Soler doing everything he could to limit the damage to Pogačar’s GC time.

At the moment, so soon after the hammer blow fell, it’s unclear why the two-time Tour champ and four-time Monument winner exploded so spectacularly at this point in the race, though there are plenty of possible explanations. For one thing, he did crash early on Wednesday’s stage, though he was able to remount and said afterwards that things didn’t hurt too badly after his fall.

He also came into the Tour recovering from a broken wrist, of course, an injury that derailed an optimal preparation for the biggest race of the year, and perhaps things finally caught up with him on stage 17. Then there was the heat, an ever-present entity in July in France that motivated Pogačar to fully unzip his jersey early on the Col de la Loze. His former team director, Allan Peiper, had even wondered on TT day whether Pogačar was getting sick. “I saw a cold sore a few days ago,” he told Sporza. “It could be a sign of lower strength.”

There will be time to assess the circumstances that led to the utter collapse of his GC bid in the days to come. For now, Pogačar preferred to state the obvious in his post-race interview.

When Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour, asked Pogačar in Courchevel to describe how he felt, Pogačar thought for a moment and then smiled wryly as he provided a succinct assessment: “Fucked. … I’m dead.”

He went on to describe the depths of his struggles even at the start of the last climb.

“I tried to eat as much as possible but it was like nothing goes in my legs, everything stays in my stomach,” he said. “I came really empty after three and a half hours. I was really empty at the bottom of the climb. If I don’t have such great support around me, I was already thinking to lose the podium today. But I kept fighting with Marc until the finish line. I’m grateful for all my teammates and fans.”

He also pointed out that he felt far worse this time than he had even on the memorable 11th stage of the 2022 Tour, where Vingegaard took over the race en route to the top of the Col du Granon.

“I think in the stage to Granon I was much much better than today,” Pogačar said. “Today was one of my worst days on the bike.”

Indeed, the time Pogačar lost on Wednesday was immense, suddenly making all of the close battles for bonus seconds earlier in the race seem trivial. With a mountain stage still to go on the penultimate day of racing at this Tour, Vingegaard’s GC margin is just seconds away from being the biggest since the 2014 Tour, where Vincenzo Nibali finished over seven minutes ahead of Jean-Christophe Peraud.

All the same, Tadej Pogačar remained true to form in the end of stage 17. Within an hour of crossing the finish line with a mixture of exhaustion and devastation written on his face, he was able to look ahead to the last mountain stage of this Tour, the penultimate day of racing to Le Markstein.

“I hope to recover now after today and that we can go for another stage win on stage 20. I think it’s going to be a good stage if we have good legs,” Pogačar said.

“If we can aim for another stage win inside the team, that would be great, and keep the podium with me and Adam, that’s a good finish.”

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