Riding is Life


Mind games as a marginal gain

Does Jumbo have a plan for that?

At the UAE Team Emirates paddock, soigneurs bring a pile of drink bottles and caps inside the team bus. It’s 30 minutes after the second stage of the Tour de France. Tadej Pogačar is inside; the bottles and caps come back out, now signed, handed to children and quite a few grownups who giggle and shriek and profusely gracias. 

At Jumbo-Visma, Wout van Aert throws his bike. Not a particularly violent throw, just a frustrated one. But it is thrown. Moments prior, about 200 meters past the finish line where he finished second, he threw a bottle at the ground so hard it bounced and flew towards the spectators. Pogačar was seen miming the action while on his rollers, a “did you see him? He was ANGRY” sort of re-enactment. 

On one side, a yellow jersey earned by a domestique as Yates was given the literal nod to go for it over the Côte de Pike. On the other, frustration caused by a lack of tactical nous.

Jumbo feels inflexible. We saw it in last year’s Tour de France, stage 5 with the cobbles, when half the team ended up on the wrong bike and Vingegaard still didn’t have the right one. We saw it again today, when a quick pull from Vingegaard would have sealed a stage win for his teammate. But that wasn’t in the plan. They won the Tour last year with a plan. The plan is everything.

On the slopes of the Jaizkibel, and for the 100 kilometers or so before, UAE seemed over-excited. Teammates pulled too hard, got yelled at by other teammates for pulling too hard. They kept Neilson Powless close, swallowed him up, and set their own man free. Over the top, it was just the two of them, again. Pogačar and Vingegaard. 

These two riders will define this Tour, if we are lucky enough. If the bad sort of fate keeps its distance, they will thrill us, shock us, set new markers in a century-old sport. It could be a Tour for the ages. And the differences between the two, and their teams, only makes the battle better. 

On the stage at the team presentation in Bilbao, last Friday, Tadej Pogačar tipped his local txapela jauntily on his tufts and made a few efforts to greet the world in Basque. The crowd, strewn with the green, red, and white flags of the Basque region in the middle of a city plastered with “Basques decide” independence posters, went predictably wild. Jumbo-Visma rolled to the team presentation with their team-issue, sponsor-correct baseball caps firmly on. 

One is aggressively uniform. The other, aggressively not. The combination of Pogačar’s boyish personality and the leftovers of Lampre make for a starkly different feel than the Dutch powerhouse, the new kings of marginal gains, led by a man who says little and picks his moments. 

This brings us to the mind games. 

There is a benefit to being the hunter and not the hunted. At this Tour, despite much evidence to the contrary from the past year, Pogačar feels like the hunter. He is not the favorite. Everyone says it. He says it. He says it over and over, because not being the favorite is freeing. 

It is easy to imagine Vingegaard on the grassy steppe, his ears perked to the silent creep of something with big teeth. That something is a smiley Slovenian who is, somehow, not the favorite. To handle Tour de France pressure, one either has to revel in it or isolate from it. Jumbo is trying the latter, and that opens them up to mind games.

UAE started this Tour with mind games. They claimed Adam Yates – who was trounced by Vingegaard at the Dauphine – was co-leader. The admission, if anyone was foolish enough to believe it, was that Pogačar was hardly better, and would soon be trounced too. They said Pogačar’s wrist was only 60%, maybe 70%, healed. Yet he sprints over climb after climb. Pogačar said his mindset was better than ever but his legs, well, he didn’t know. I think we know now. 

Jumbo know what UAE are doing. At one point in the pre-race press conferences, where top riders are trotted out on a stage and 150 or so journalists pepper them with questions for about 15 minutes, Wout van Aert added to one of Vingegaard’s answers: “I think that is, like your colleague said, mind games,” he said, a bit exasperated.

There is a reason so many Tour winners do not repeat. These are men, not machines, and the weight of expectation is as important as any actual kilograms gained or shed. UAE is piling as much expectation onto Jumbo and its defending champion as they possibly can. They are taking advantage of their own leader’s disposition and of the inflexibility of their opponent.

Given recent experience, the question, then, is whether Jumbo have a plan for that.

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