The Tour’s playing field begins to shift

Tadej Pogačar's momentum grows.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 14.07.2023 Photography by
Gruber Images and Kramon
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The UAE Team Emirates bus is an oasis of calm in a factory carpark in the valley beneath the Grand Colombier. Mechanics bustle around industriously, waiting for the riders to make their way down. Joxean Fernández Matxín, the team’s sports manager, stands under the shade of the awnings, patiently answering the same questions over and over again as pockets of media make their way over to him for their audience with the king(maker). 

Makes sense that they’d all want to talk: UAE Team Emirates controlled the race all day, setting Tadej Pogačar up for an explosive finale that was almost perfect if not for the remnants of a Michał Kwiatkowski-led breakaway. The Slovenian took four seconds back off his chief rival for yellow and grabbed four bonus seconds at the summit. A small gain for a big day’s work, but a gain nonetheless. 

The day looked a lot like this: lots of UAE riders on the front, a smaller number of Jumbo-Visma riders behind.

Up on the mountain, it’s chaos. There was a day-long build to The Moment, and it came with 500 metres to go. Tadej Pogačar burst from a dwindling group of favourites, an acceleration peaking at 36.4 km/h up the steep finale of the Grand Colombier. Vingegaard followed, then faded. Shades of Puy de Dôme: there, on similarly steep gradients, Pogačar had prised open a small gap with violent acceleration, extended it slowly, and crossed the line with the upper hand. Not by much, but you don’t always need much; Tours are won and lost on small margins. 

The margin is small here – nine seconds in Vingegaard’s favour – but there’s momentum for Pogačar. After crossing the line, he’s shuffled from stage finish to TV interview to podium, and finally, bundled into the back of a van and off to meet his teammates for dinner.

Down in the valley, rugged up in jackets for the descent despite the gooey asphalt, the riders of UAE Team Emirates start rolling into the carpark. In the chaos of the finish, they lack context. Adam Yates is first to the bus, turning back to media waiting for an interview to tell them, “I don’t know what happened.” Marc Soler speaks quietly to a mechanic – something to do with his rear derailleur – and then has a similarly hushed conversation with his mum and dad. Mikkel Bjerg walks straight past a Danish TV station waiting for an interview, and the disappointed correspondent tells her colleagues that “he didn’t recognise me” (he absolutely did). We keep waiting. 

A post-shower Yates comes out to see his dog, Zoe, who sits on the tarmac while he runs his hands absent-mindedly through her fur. A UAE soigneur pours Vittel into his cupped hand to give her a little drink. I kinda want to talk to Yates about his attack – the one Matxin had said was a key tactical foundation to Pogačar’s own attack – but I don’t press the issue. He seems happy. UAE seems zen, despite the hard day. Why ruin the solace?

Around us, the Tour de France goes on. Jai Hindley rolls to the bus shaking his head with a stunned smile – a kind of ‘that was fucked but fun’ vibe. David Gaudu rolls urgently past the French media, ignores their questions, disappears straight into the bus and emerges 20 minutes later to make out at length with his girlfriend, limbs disappearing inside clothing and tongues down throats. There is no Tadej Pogačar, but on the mountaintop he’d said that it was “a good situation … victory in the battle for yellow, a little bit.” A little smile. A little gap to overcome. A team that seems calm, a gap that’s moving in the right direction, and a level playing field that has begun, almost imperceptibly, to shift. 

Down in the valley, Matxin is asked about the question of Tadej Pogačar’s form. “His form?”, he responds, a little smile flickering on what has mostly been an expressionless face. “Nothing surprises me with the form of Tadej. He’s the number one cyclist in the world.”

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