Into the Alps and back into battle

After a lull in the GC contest, the action looks set to heat up again.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 14.07.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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It’s been a great Tour de France so far. An intriguing course design prompted plenty of early action, we’ve seen some stirring breakaway wins, and we have a GC battle that’s beautifully poised with nine stages remaining.

That GC battle got off to a frenetic start, with the big favourites butting heads from the get-go. In recent days though, that particular contest has faded into the background while the sprinters and breakaway artists have made their bids for glory.

For most of a week now, the overall contenders have been largely happy to bide their time, waiting for the trickier days ahead. Those trickier days are about to begin.

Before we get to that though, a quick recap of the GC battle so far.

It began on the very first stage, with two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) surging to the front on the final climb of the day, forcing defending champ Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) to chase. The hostilities resumed the next day, with the pair briefly getting away together after another late climb. Both Pogačar and Vingegaard would end up inside the top six on GC after just two days of racing.

On stage 5, the first proper mountain stage of the race, we saw Pogačar unable to follow when Vingegaard attacked on the Col de Marie Blanque, allowing the Dane to put more than a minute into his Slovenian rival and move up to second overall. Meanwhile, Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) was winning the stage and moving into the overall lead, prompting many to ask whether the Australian could lead all the way to Paris.

Hindley lost the lead the very next day, dropped on the Col du Tourmalet. Pogačar, meanwhile, was about to bounce back in emphatic fashion. The 24-year-old attacked 3 km from the finish in Cauterets-Cambasque, dropped Vingegaard, won the stage, and pulled back 24 seconds to the defending champion. But Vingegaard had done enough to take the overall lead and finished the stage 25 seconds ahead of Pogačar in second, and 1:34 ahead of Hindley in third.

Pogačar winning stage 6.

In the six stages since Vingegaard took yellow, not a whole lot has changed at the top of the GC leaderboard.

Sprint finishes on stages 7 and 8 had no impact on the top three placings or the time gaps between them, and even the mountain-top finish on stage 9 changed little. Behind Mike Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), who won the stage to Puy de Dôme from the day-long breakaway, Pogačar dropped Vingegaard with 1.5 km to go. The difference at the finish, though, was just eight seconds. Hindley shipped more time but remained in third overall.

The top three on GC hasn’t changed in the three days since. After stage 12, Vingegaard leads the Tour by 17 seconds, ahead of Pogačar. Hindley is third, 1:40 behind Vinegaard.

Which brings us to Friday’s stage 13 and an intriguing three stages in the Alps. It’s the hardest three-stage sequence in this year’s race.

Stage 13 is a relatively straightforward day … until the last climb that is. From Culoz it’s 17.4 km at a punchy 7% to the finish line atop the Grand Colombier. This seems unlikely to be a day for the breakaway; it’s more likely the GC contenders will go all-out in this straight power test, to see if they can break one another.

Stage 14 doesn’t end atop a hors categorie climb like stage 13 does, but it is a much harder day. As you can see from the profile below, it’s up and down throughout, with three Cat 1 climbs, and then the notoriously difficult Col de Joux Plane as the final ascent of the day.

That Joux Plane climb, one of the hardest in the Alps, is 11.6 km at 8.5% and peaks 12 km from the line, so the descent afterwards will be crucial. This has the look of a breakaway day, but Pogačar and Vingegaard will surely test one another on the steep second half of the Joux Plane …

And then there’s stage 15, which has an equally intimidating profile. There’s a whole stack of climbs on the menu, including 7 km at 7.7% to the finish in Le Bettex, on the lower slopes of the mighty Mont Blanc. Again, whether this is a day won from the breakaway likely doesn’t matter – we should still see some movement from the big overall favourites, particularly given there’s a rest day afterwards in which to recover.

And so, after a bit of a lull, the Pogačar vs Vingegaard battle is primed to reignite in the Alps. Both will likely be on the attack at different times in the days ahead, and both have shown moments of weakness throughout the Tour so far, with each dropping the other at least once. The contest is delicately poised.

And while the race for the maillot jaune has always looked like a two-horse race, Pogačar vs Vingegaard is far from the only battle worth watching. Places three to 10 on GC are separated by around four minutes – not a whole lot of time considering the bevy of GC days ahead. And while Hindley has 1:42 over Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) in fourth, the fight for that fourth place is particularly tight.

Just 22 seconds separate Rodriguez, stage 10 winner Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious), stage 1 winner Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates), and his twin brother Simon Yates (Jayco-AlUla) in places four through seven. We’ll surely see some shuffling of those positions in the days ahead.

The GC after 12 stages.

The Tour might not be decided in the three-stage block ahead, but it will almost certainly give us more information about who’s going well ahead of the final week. And regardless of how it all unfolds, we’re surely set for some more exciting and entertaining racing. Bring it on.

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