Tadej Pogačar on the attack in the yellow jersey during stage 9 of the 2024 Tour de France.

Making sense of stage 9’s GC mayhem and mind games

The favourites all ended stage 9 on the same time, but it was a dramatic day out on the gravel roads of the Champagne region.

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) during stage 9 of the 2024 Tour de France. Photo: © Jered Gruber

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 07.07.2024 Photography by
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One of the most hotly anticipated stages of the entire Tour de France was Sunday’s stage 9 around Troyes in the world-famous Champagne region, comprising a bunch of sharp inclines and no less than 14 gravel sectors. On paper it was a perfect day for a breakaway win – and so it was – but it was also a day tagged with that age-old cyclingism: you couldn’t win the Tour, but boy, could you lose it.

And while there were a handful of GC outsiders anxious not to lose too much time, there were a few others whose raw racing spirit could not be dimmed on the most perfect of Classics-esque stages.

Race leader Tadej Pogačar and best young rider Remco Evenepoel are both that sort of rider, both Monument winners, both blessed with a sometimes self-destructive determination to race “from the heart.” And both brought that into stage 9.

Jonas Vingegaard is not that sort of rider. He’s perhaps the most specialised GC specialist in the sport right now, and though that necessitates a high level on all terrains, the diminutive Dane is not among the first names you’d associate with gravel prowess. Not to mention the pretty horrific injuries he has had to recover from since crashing in the Basque Country, and which prevented him from racing at all in the 12 weeks before attempting to defend back-to-back Tour victories.

Seen from behind, Tadej Pogačar in the yellow jersey leads Jonas Vingegaard on a gravel sector during stage 9 of the 2024 Tour de France.

Nevertheless, Vingegaard was able to mark his punchier rivals repeatedly, sometimes relying on teammates Christophe Laporte and Matteo Jorgenson, in a sequence of events that climaxed early, no less than 75 km from the finish after a bold move from Evenepoel.

In the end it all came to nothing, just as Pogačar anticipated. Caked in dust, Tim Wellens said on Sunday afternoon that his team leader didn’t expect to gain much on stage 9, pointing out that “it would be a lot of drama for little [gain],” and he was bang on.

A lot was learned, though, and all watching certainly gained from their exploits, which set a tantalising precedent for the GC battles to come.

The relaxed GC group, led by Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogačar, crosses the line of stage 9 of the 2024 Tour de France.
Penny for your thoughts, boys?

Here’s what we saw on the most chaotic day of the Tour so far.

Pogačar throws down the gauntlet

The race had traversed the first two gravel sectors, losing and regaining Primož Roglič, and dropping Simon Yates and Richard Carapaz for good among many many others (both lost almost ten minutes, well and truly ending any GC ambitions), when UAE Team Emirates set about stretching the bunch – a sure sign that Pogačar was restless.

The yellow jersey moved up to the pointy end of the reduced peloton over the top of the three-star Polisy à Celles-sur-Ource sector which happened also to be on the Cat. 4 Cóte de Val Frion, and then plunged into the descent without a look behind him.

Why did Pogačar attack? Because he could, and doing so would land another psychological blow to his rivals. He also chose a perfect spot to do so, scorching down a descent where he needed more handling skills than power in the legs.

It took a few-hundred metres for anyone to get organised, and it was Evenepoel who was fastest in response, soon joined by Laporte, Jorgenson, and a show of force from the Ineos Grenadiers. Not for the first nor last time on this stage, European champion Laporte was the man to reel the yellow jersey in and restore calm. Briefly.

Evenepoel picks it up

The next and last categorised climb of the Côte de Chacenay, also incorporating a three-star gravel sector, provided another opportunity, a classic launchpad. Visma-Lease a Bike was pushing the pace in the peloton at this point, Wout van Aert back in worker mode on a day he would spend yoyoing from the front to the rear of the pack and back, UAE Team Emirates hovering on their tail.

Despite the grimace-inducing pace on the front, Evenepoel was ready to pounce, and he chose a section just before the road kicked up in earnest, and just as the channel narrowed through a tunnel of rabid fans.

Whether it was the wisest place for the young Belgian to attack is up for debate, and not only for the significant distance from the finish. While Pogačar had attacked on a descent, Evenepoel had opted for a much greater effort on one of the steepest ramps of the stage. It’s an effort he might pay for later in his debut Tour, but in the moment, he was firmly in race mode.

Evenepoel is an immensely punchy rider. In one-day races or past stages on which he’s less of a threat, these are the sorts of accelerations that end the race before its begun. But both Pogačar and Vingegaard were ready and resolved to get back on terms, and within a couple of kilometres, they’d done just that.

Vingegaard is the grown-up in the room

This is where tactics really come in, outweighing pure power and heart – Vingegaard refused to come through and offer either of his companions a turn.

If looks could kill.

Evenepoel was particularly miffed at this turn of events – though he would concede a begrudging understanding after the stage – and even as the trio caught up to the breakaway, Pogačar’s resolve appeared to wain along with Vingegaard.

This will be argued to death, probably for days to come, but this armchair expert for one is totally on board with Vingegaard and Visma-Lease a Bike’s execution of the day – Escape Collective‘s Dane Cash goes deep on Visma’s day out. They did what was best for their leader with so much left of the race, not least because he spent the last 100 km of the stage on Jan Tratnik’s bike after puncturing, a bike close to but not exactly set up for his dimensions.

What if he punctured again? What if he slipped out in a corner while 2-3 minutes ahead of the nearest teammate? What if a 75-kilometre effort brought him to his limit post-recovery to the detriment of mountain stages to come?

Sure, the three favourites – with apologies to Primož Roglič who survived a very difficult day with his fourth-overall intact – could have gained a few minutes over anyone else vying for the podium with two weeks to go, but Vingegaard knew his preferred terrain is still to come, and he was doing well but was out of his element, so it was simply too much of a risk.

You don’t need a body language expert to understand what’s going through Evenepoel’s mind in this moment, as the top three on GC leave the breakaway to continue their adventure unfettered.

Mercifully for the leaders on the road, the gap bounced back out to over a minute once the GC trio returned to the pack, where Mikel Landa welcomed Evenepoel with a wry smile, and the ceasefire allowed a bit of a regathering in the yellow jersey group.

There was no time to let thoughts wander though, with the next gravel sector never far away.

The gravel bites back

The last three-star sector, the seventh of 14 in total, was the next opportunity for mayhem to erupt, starting shallow, albeit twisty and under tree cover, before arcing skyward at ever steeper pitches. At 4 km in length it was also the second longest of the stage, so when Evenepoel was forced to come to a complete stop in the heavy gravel before enduring a hill start, the white jersey suddenly found himself in a very different chase.

From initiating one of the more exciting moves of the day to a desperate charge through the scattered peloton on one of the longest gravel sectors of the race.

Visma-Lease a Bike was leading the yellow jersey group again, this time ploughing straight into a block headwind to make the gravel climb all the harder. The wind probably worked for Evenepoel though, and within five kilometres or so, he’d made his way back into a safe position near the front of the pack, ready for the next assault.

By this time all the notable climbing was done, but almost half the gravel sectors remained – plenty more opportunities to chip away at one another.

One more time?

Pogačar’s last big move came 22 kilometres from the finish, the stage by this point very likely to go the way of the breakaway, which had already weathered the pressures of the GC battle. The peloton now had a distinctly ragged look, everyone coated in thick dust that airbrushed the features until all that remained was a thousand-yard stare and a grimace.

But, resplendent in a yellow skinsuit, Pogačar was not done yet. And when he attacked on the antepenultimate sector, he very nearly slipped the leash.

Evenepoel was out of position (he comes into view several bike lengths behind Vingegaard) and Vingegaard’s more punchy teammates sat between he and the yellow jersey.

The beers are on Jonas

Pogačar’s gap seemed to stretch in slow motion. Christophe Laporte and Matteo Jorgenson were able to respond pretty quickly, but Vingegaard appeared to be stuck in mid air as Evenepoel chased desperately even further back.

A moment of indecision or confusion delayed the Visma riders’ slowing to help out the Dane, but Jorgenson soon offered Vingegaard his wheel, and with a sterling three-kilometre pull, the threat was neutralised once more.

Jorgenson was the perfect wheel for the slender two-time Tour champion.

Evenepoel et al. returned to the picture within three kilometres, and after one final attempt from Pogačar to ambush his rivals by divebombing through a corner inside the last 10 km, neutralised once more by Visma’s domestiques, the yellow jersey had to concede that the GC battle was over for another day.

Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies) was the biggest winner of the day, but each of the top three also have reasons to celebrate as the Tour heads into its first rest day: Pogačar is thriving in yellow and, as always, he’s bringing entertainment to the bike race; Evenepoel is holding firm in second place with an ever-tighter grip on the white jersey, and he’s proving he deserves to be considered up there with the best; and Vingegaard is dogged in his determination to overcome the doubters and his injuries, just as his team come into their own.

All that said, there’s a long way to go yet. And the hardest stages are still to come.

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