Tadej Pogačar leads Jonas Vingegaard on a section of white gravel roads on stage 9 of the 2024 Tour de France.

Moods and mind games on the Tour de France’s first rest day

The four top contenders for the yellow jersey remained cagey about their form and plans amid some verbal jabs.

by Daniel Benson 08.07.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
More from Daniel +

After nine days of gripping racing at the Tour de France, just 1:36 separates the top four on the general classification, with Tadej Pogačar topping the standings and Remco Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard and Primoż Roglič all in close attendance. 

Stage 9 drew out all four contenders on the gravel roads around Troyes and saw Pogačar and Evenepoel both take aggressive stances with a series of attacks. Vingegaard offered a stiff defence, matching his main rivals but doing no more or less than he needed.

The rest day on Monday allowed for the race and its top GC contenders to take stock, gather their momentum, and reframe their battle lines, and it was a case of continued mind games in the media and barbed comments as all four yellow jersey hopefuls attempted to sway pressure from one another and get inside the heads of their rivals. This was a day for a different type of performance, more nuanced and vocal than athletic and violent. The victory wouldn’t be decided by time or strength but by who could deliver the best lines.

Vingegaard was in a philosophical mood on Monday, playing down the tension that emanated from Evenepoel after the Belgian criticised his lack of “balls” for not riding once the pair escaped with Pogačar midway through the stage.

“If I ride with them for 70 kilometres and then get dropped in the last kilometres – which is what happened – then my Tour could be over. So it was not a lack of balls, but just smart racing,” Vingegaard said. Despite being down on Pogačar in the GC, the Visma-Lease a Bike rider could afford a slight dig towards his primary rival when asked how much time he could concede before the most difficult third week. 

“I can’t put a number on that. Last year I took seven minutes in two days. Now we don’t know how I’m going to react in the third week. We’ll see day by day. Of course, the closer I am, the better. But I trusted our plan last year. That worked. I trust the plan this year too.”

There was a similarly tranquil yet barbed approach from Pogačar during his afternoon video press conference. The Slovenian has been the most aggressive of all four Grand Tour contenders in this year’s race but hasn’t been able to truly crack any of his main rivals. If only there hadn’t been a buffering headwind on the Col du Galibier earlier in the race. 

When asked about Visma’s cagey and calculating approach to the race so far, the yellow jersey responded: “Last year they were really confident into the final and now I think they’re playing the same. They try to have this confidence for the final week, but I must say it doesn’t bother me because I’m way more confident in myself as well this year,” Pogačar said at the start of his media appearance. 

“I like the way the race went until now. I have the yellow jersey which feels good for me. I’ll just do my own race. Normally if everything goes smoothly, I should have good legs next week and also in the final three days,” he added.

Wout van Aert and Jonas Vingegaard sit in large accent chairs in a conference room at a hotel. They're surrounded by a semi-circle of media, all pointing cameras and microphones as they answer press questions on a rest day.
Jonas Vingegaard (foreground) and Wout van Aert address the media at a rest-day press conference.

The UAE Team Emirates leader was also quick to undermine the notion that Vingegaard was simply feeling his way into the Tour de France following his injury-disrupted season. He pointed to stage 2, where Vingegaard was the only rider able to match Pogačar’s vicious attack on the San Luca climb, and the fact that only six seconds separated the pair at the summit of the Galibier before the gap extended on the long descent. 

“Already on stage 2 when we went up to San Luca we had the best time up there. Even if it was not the fastest approach, we still beat the record by 20 seconds and Jonas was pretty good at holding my wheel. I must say that Jonas’ shape after stage 2 … if you can go that fast up San Luca, your shape is pretty good. Also, the way he’s riding in the peloton, following the wheels of his teammates, he’s super focused and sharp. He’s doing the downhills and taking risks in the bunch so I think he’s pretty sharp and in good shape.”

Fear is an extreme word to use in the race but given the terrain that’s still to come, and the way in which Vingegaard has run Pogačar ragged in the last two editions of the race, it has place in the vocabulary of this year’s narrative. Both Pogačar and Vingegaard are looking for any weakness, any telltale sign of hesitation and vulnerability that they can open and expose. 

“No, I’m not afraid of him,” Pogačar said, before trying to turn the tables. 

“I would say yesterday I was more afraid of Remco because he was really flying, but I’m not afraid of anyone. I think yesterday I could see Visma was afraid of me. You could see that when Remco goes or when anybody else has a gap, Jonas doesn’t care, he just cares about me and the team took the rest. When Primož was held back, then they put the team to the front to ride. If I had been on the back, then probably Jonas also would have ridden. It was just this dynamic, Jonas was focusing on me.

“I think he is a little bit afraid, but we will see in the climbs how it’s going to go. If they’re trying to attack me mentally, they’re not succeeding. They race totally against me, but I’m now used to it. Already in the last three, four Tours, it was always the same. I’m getting used to this, so it doesn’t hurt. I have to do my own race.”

As for Remco, he took a far more measured approach during his press gathering, putting aside the frustrations from 24 hours earlier to focus on putting the pressure back on the rivals who sandwich him in the overall standings, and making a point to highlight his lack of Tour de France experience in comparison. 

“We know that I have to put enough effort into following those men. We saw that on the Galibier, for example,” he said. “So yes, there are no plans to let those men go. Although you do have that saying: ‘the two dogs with a bone and the third one runs away with it.’ Or how does that saying go? That is not in our minds yet. We are really focusing on ourselves,” he said.

“I have to follow those guys as long as possible. They are the two best Tour riders in the world. It’s not up to me to say that I’m going to outrace them somewhere uphill,” Evenepoel added. 

And what of Roglič, who has looked the weaker of the quartet at stages but remains within touching distance of the podium and the yellow jersey? Rather unfancied for many, he cannot be ruled out. 

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so good on the first rest day at the Tour,” he said before laughing. 

The veteran was an onlooker on stage 9 when he was distanced on the gravel, and was the first to show weakness on the Galibier earlier in the race. But the Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe captain remains positive, nonetheless and was only complimentary towards his three main competitors. 

“The key is just having the strongest legs in the third week. You need to be there with the best ones. You can’t drop five minutes and then come back. I’m not tiring myself about positions.”

“It’s hard to manage your own things,” he said when asked about the notion that Visma had played down Vingegaard’s power in the race, according to Pogačar. “I also don’t want to think about it. I try to answer my own questions and be happy with the place I’m in.” 

Whether he’s truly happy with the place he’s in on GC remains to be seen but then again all four of the Tour de France contenders were putting on a different kind of performance on the rest day.

What did you think of this story?