The Tour de France is finely poised. It seems universally agreed, both from the factual evidence of the current GC standings and anyone with eyes who’s watched the first 10 stages, that barring disaster the winner in Paris will be either Jonas Vingegaard or Tadej Pogačar.
But how to pick between them at this stage, with only 17 seconds separating them and many mountains and a time trial still to come? Following an early blip on stage 5, Pogačar has managed to distance Vingegaard more than once, while Vingegaard may be biding his time for a third week where a Pogačar without ideal pre-Tour preparation could start to show some cracks.
Both teams and riders seem galvanised by the prospect of an exciting race with two closely matched protagonists. However, there is one missing piece of this year’s puzzle that last year was key in delivering Jumbo-Visma victory, a win forged in the race’s pivotal second week.
That missing piece is Primož Roglič. The Slovenian was key on stage 11 of the 2022 race in the one-two attacks with Vingegaard that finally allowed the Dane to march up the road and take a race-winning three minutes out of Pogačar. While Roglič was already down in 13th on GC, he was only 2:52 in arrears following a crash-marred first week (he would eventually abandon after stage 14), and probably too dangerous for Pogačar to have allowed up the road on that Col du Granon stage.
Overall standings aside, there was also likely a psychological factor, that Pogačar wasn’t prepared to let his older countryman escape up the road, out of sight and control. Usually calm and collected, the combination of Vingegaard and Roglič is the only thing to have ever mentally short-circuited UAE Team Emirates’ two-time Tour champion. Will not having that edge end up costing Jumbo-Visma?
“Of course, Primož is a really special rider and it could be an opportunity,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Frans Maassen told Escape Collective before the start of stage 10 of how having Roglič at the race would have provided his team an extra outlet to help achieve their goal of defeating Pogačar. “But we still have Sepp Kuss and we’ll have to see in the last week if that plays a role or not.”
Kuss is one of the best climbers in the world, but is currently 9th overall, 6:45 down on Vingegaard, and does not present a similar threat like the two-pronged attack the Dutch team had last year. Of course, Roglič rode and won the Giro this May, so probably wouldn’t have had the same legs at this year’s Tour.
“I don’t know,” answered UAE Team Emirates manager Mauro Gianetti, when asked the same Roglič question. “At the end of the day they [Jumbo-Visma] such strong teammates, it’s difficult to say. If he were here we would see the reaction. After the Giro, it was a hard Giro … it’s never sure. It’s not my team; I will not judge, it’s a difficult decision.”
“It’s a pity Primož is not here,” Vingegaard admitted after stage 10. “I’m also very confident in the team we have, we have a super-strong team and I think the team are climbing super well. I’m also very happy with the team I have.”
While both rival teams remain tight-lipped on what could have been had the older Slovenian been on the start line, there is no doubt of the impact a fully fit Roglič would have had on Jumbo-Visma’s potential tactics. Wout van Aert is the other key rider for Vingegaard, and last year was also instrumental in delivering the Dane to the Champs-Élysées clad in yellow.
The Belgian could leave the race early this year, however, ahead of the birth of his second child. Rumours are already abound that his departure could be as soon as before tomorrow’s stage 11. They are whispers the team denies, with Vingegaard laughing when asked about Wout’s future whereabouts. “He’s not going anywhere,” the Dane said with a grin.
An unspoken fact of both Vingegaard and Pogačar’s statements that they fancy the third week better for potentially winning the Tour is that the parcours of this second week is tricky. Hard racing, as we saw today on stage 10, could sap Pogačar’s energy levels following his not-ideal prep. Equally, should Van Aert be whisked away suddenly with difficult lumpy days still to come, that could leave Vingegaard exposed.
“Now we are in the yellow jersey and last year a lot of people thought the race was already done,” Maassen said of the differences between this year and last year following the first rest day, and how having the race lead is a definite advantage to chasing time on Pogačar at this moment in 2022. “Now it’s completely open. That’s a major change. Of course, Jonas and Pogačar look the strongest of all the Tour riders, it will be a battle between them.”
Gianetti agrees on this latter point: “I think we’ve seen the difference is very small. It’s normal to change tactics, the battle is between the two guys.
“Of course, it’s very important for morale but also in time,” Gianetti continued on UAE Team Emirates’ point of view of having finished the final mountain stages of the first week in a position of strength, having clawed back time from Vingegaard. “Two guys, two champions are so close between each other. Each second will be important at the end of each Tour.”
“I think we saw in the Giro it was decided by 14 seconds. The difference between the champions now are not so big. We’ll see, maybe Vingegaard is right and there will be minutes between the two guys [referencing Vingegaard’s earlier stated belief that bonus seconds won’t matter so much in the end] but after one week it’s very close.
“We can say this sport is so nice thanks to these two guys. On a day like today we see that the first week was an incredible week and I think everyone wants to see the same spectacle for the next two weeks.”
With fans, riders and team managers all hoping for more fireworks, let’s hope everyone sticks to the agreed upon script.
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