Eight black Colnagos leaned against the UAE team bus, their owners having abandoned them to trudge up the stairs and into one of those morose post-stage debriefs of the sort nobody enjoys. Somebody hit the button for the front bus door, which lurched into motion. The bikes knocked, tipping, slowly, inevitably and unstoppably.
Staff ran. Gravity did its thing. And a metaphor for UAE’s fortunes on stage 5 crashed down before me.
It was not a good day for Tadej Pogačar and his UAE team. He was on his limit and then past it, losing time on the way up and the way down the Col de Marie Blanque. His team was used up, pulled back out of the group earlier to help retain control over a charging Jai Hindley. Pogačar’s options narrowed to one: chase like your Tour depends on it.
In the end, the gap was just over a minute to nemesis Jonas Vingegaard and 1’38” to Australian Jai Hindley, whose form and bravery demand that he not be ignored. On the overall, Pogačar is now back 1’40” on Hindley and 53 seconds on Vingegaard. After one day in the Pyrenees, he sits in sixth.
This team has felt unnaturally relaxed for the last week. As the tension at Jumbo-Visma grew increasingly thick, UAE was chatty at the busses, chatty in the mixed zone. Pogačar’s personality was allowed to shine through a bit more than in previous years. Wednesday wasn’t a shift to dour, it was just silent. The team sent out general manager Mauro Gianetti as its media sacrifice and he spent 30 minutes answering the same half dozen questions in a few different languages, alone.
Riders went inside the bus and never came back. Mechanics, nowhere to be seen during the tipping incident, suddenly dashed in at full gallop to grab the bikes and get them on car roofs, desperate to make the evacuation out of this tiny Pyreneean town. Pogačar finally showed up, missed his bus, had to double back, and climb the stairs to disappear just like everyone else.
He did speak at the finish. He still seemed calm. His immediate concern was his girlfriend, Urska Zigart, who crashed hard at the Giro Donne and may have a concussion. He seemed a bit resigned to his time loss.
He thinks Vingegaard spotted weakness because there was indeed some to be spotted.
“When Sepp [Kuss] went really hard on the climb, he could see that I was a bit going full gas,” Pogačar said. “So he tried to attack, and I couldn’t follow because he was just stronger today.”
“I think it’s going to be ok,” he added. “I’s still a long way, I feel OK, that’s the more important thing.”
Still, UAE’s best-case scenario for this Tour is broke apart today.
The first part of the plan, according to UAE general manager Mauro Gianetti, was to come in with the best form possible given Pogačar’s broken wrist in April. The expectation was that his fitness wouldn’t be perfect; it would hopefully be good enough. The second part was to gather as many bonus seconds as possible in the first two days to help build a buffer for what the team feared might be a difficult Pyrenees. Pogačar did that. And then the third part, the part we haven’t seen yet and might not see, is where Pogačar rides into his maximum level over the next week or so and wins the Tour de France in the third week.
“We did everything it was possible to do with Tadej to be ready, without forcing too much,” Gianetti said. “Now the hope is he is in progression and he can progress in the next two weeks.”
There were tactical errors too, though Gianetti disagrees with that assessment. UAE made two key calls that ended up shaping how the day unfolded.
The first was letting a 35-rider break go with Jai Hindley in it. One could argue that “letting” is too strong a word – it was a strong move and UAE wasn’t getting much help controlling things since 20 of the teams in the race had at least one man off the front.
But the makeup of that group, its strength, ended up shoving UAE into a corner. “UAE were under massive pressure all day, letting that break go was a disaster for them I think,” Ineos’ Tom Pidcock said. “They had to spend a lot of pennies and legs to control the race today.”
UAE had Felix Großschartner and Marc Soler in the move. But the second error was to pull those two riders back too early. They felt they had to in order to retain control over the peloton and keep the chase moving – to keep Hindley in check, basically. “It was our responsibility to take the race in hand and control to not let the break take too much advantage,” Gianetti said. “Hindley just won the Giro d’Italia.” The battle, he said, is now between the three riders.
Tomorrow is the Tourmalet. Pogačar, still unflappable, doesn’t seem worried. “I hope for better legs tomorrow,” he said. “I think it’s going to be OK. It’s still a long way, I feel OK. That’s the more important thing.”
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