Visma-Lease a Bike and Tadej Pogačar on stage 9 of the Tour de France.

Vingegaard and Visma only wanted to play defense on gravel stage

Pogačar attacked and attacked again on stage 9 of the Tour de France, but Vingegaard and Visma-Lease a Bike held their ground.

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 07.07.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Visma-Lease a Bike has found itself on the back foot on more than one occasion so far in the 2024 Tour de France, but the team of defending champion Jonas Vingegaard stood firm in the face of repeated attacks by Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) on Sunday’s gravelly ninth stage. When all was said and done, the race leader had been unable to gain any time on Vingegaard – or any of his other key rivals – even on a parcours that suited his Strade Bianche-winning skillset.

Such was the desire to maintain the status quo that even when an opportunity presented itself in the form of a move with all three of the current GC top three, Visma decided to play defense. “It was a pity Jonas didn’t work with us because the race could have been over,” Remco Evenepoel said, adding later, “sometimes you need balls to race.”

Vingegaard and team were having none of it. “It was a very, very stressful day,” he said afterward. “I’m just happy to make it through safely.”

More than arriving at the line in Troyes safely, Vingegaard also finished on the same time as Pogačar, marking a successful effort for a Visma team that had clearly been laser-focused on doing just that on the day.

A hilly stage with 14 gravel sectors was always going to provide Pogačar with a chance to put time into Vingegaard, who said that the Slovenian had a clear advantage on the terrain.

“Tadej, on the gravel sections, he was the strongest,” he said. “It favors him also more than it favors me, especially when it was more loose, a guy with my weight, it’s not favorable. When he got a small gap on me it was probably the worst sector, in the case of the gravel. It was so loose that I was just sliding around to be honest. It was really hard for me to control the bike.”

Pogačar seemed far more comfortable. He moved off the front numerous times, explaining in his press conference that he was keen to get out ahead and out of the dust. But he also seemed to sense weakness in his rival. “I think Vingegaard is afraid of me,” he said after the stage. Which, if true, is a pretty good reason for Vingegaard not to isolate himself with his two biggest rivals.

Tadej Pogačar tried to put the pressure on Jonas Vingegaard on more than one occasion.
Tadej Pogačar tried to put the pressure on Jonas Vingegaard on more than one occasion.

Vingegaard was happy to get a boost from his teammates on stage 9, in contrast to when he found himself lacking helpers on the mountainous fourth stage where Pogačar gained significant time going up and over the Galibier. For a team that has dealt with near-constant misfortune this season, from Vingegaard’s huge crash in the Itzulia Basque Country to the late scratch of Sepp Kuss from the Tour squad, Sunday’s stage on the gravel was a reminder of the collective strength that has made Visma so good the past few years.

Jan Tratnik provided his team leader a major assist simply by being a similar height. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner was called up to give Vingegaard his bike with just under 100 km to go due to a mechanical, and Vingegaard would go on to tackle the entire rest of the stage on the borrowed ride. Tratnik later explained that it was a pre-planned “duty” of his to provide his similarly fitted (albeit not exactly the same) bike in case of incident, with Vingegaard having previously trained on his bike already to confirm that it was suitable.

With Vingegaard aboard a properly functioning bike, it was up to Christophe Laporte, Wout van Aert, and especially Matteo Jorgenson to help chase down Pogačar as the Slovenian superstar made repeated attempts to put the other GC riders in the rearview mirror. They were up to the challenge, and Vingegaard was able to link up with Pogačar every time he opened up a gap.

Unlike on stage 4, where UAE flexed its might with numbers in the high mountains even as Vingegaard’s teammates faltered, this time it was Visma that had the numbers. Jorgenson said afterward that he considered Visma “the strongest team for this stage.”

“We had confidence that we could get ourselves out of any problem,” he said – and it’s easy to understand why, considering the presence of so many Classics heavyweights in the Visma Tour squad.

For all their team strength, it was clear that Visma’s main objective was to keep Vingegaard on the same time as Pogačar, even if it meant ignoring opportunities to put time into other rivals. With a little under 80 km to go, an attack by Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) drew Vingegaard and Pogačar with him, leaving Primož Roglič (Red Bull-Bora Hansgrohe) scrambling in a chasing group behind. Vingegaard, however, did not seem interested in collaborating, and the gap was ultimately closed down.

“It was a pity Jonas didn’t work with us because the race could have been over,” Evenepoel said.

Further into the stage, Jorgenson helped Vingegaard bridge up to an attacking Pogačar, and this time both Evenepoel and Roglič had been left in the dust. Again, Visma was content to sit on Pogačar’s wheel rather than punishing other GC hopefuls.

Jorgenson defended the tactical decision.

“The rival of the Tour is Pogačar,” said the 25-year-old American. “We weren’t going to ride with Pogačar in our wheel, have Wout and Christophe behind us, that’s just not smart at all.”

Jonas Vingegaard would not let Tadej Pogačar out of sight on the gravel.
Jonas Vingegaard would not let Tadej Pogačar out of sight on the gravel.

Pogačar’s last attempt to get clear, inside the final 10 km, also came up short. In the end, all of the major GC contenders arrived altogether in Troyes in a sizable group. The only change in the GC top 10 on the day was Derek Gee’s surge from 14th into ninth after he finished third on the stage from the break, dropping Jorgenson to 10th overall and sending Aleksandr Vlasov (Red Bull-Bora Hansgrohe) to 11th.

In other words, what could have been a day with serious GC implications had very few, and that appears to have been just what Visma was hoping for at the start of the stage.

Jorgenson said that Visma was “really satisfied” with the outcome.

“We got through the day, we got through this complicated moment when Jonas had to change on to Jan’s bike,” he said. “I’m just glad we got ourselves out of it.”

Even if the team has downplayed any losses to Pogačar so far in this Tour, Vingegaard and Visma do have significant ground to make up nine stages into the race. Vingegaard sits 1:15 behind Pogačar in third, with Evenepoel sitting second, 33 seconds down on the leader. For the decisive winner of the last two Tours de France, it may be a bit strange to go into the second week at such a disadvantage.

Still, there will be ample opportunity for Vingegaard to reverse his losses in the mountain stages to come, if he is actually feeling up to the challenge. Every time he has ceded ground to Pogačar thus far in the Tour, his team has said that they were content to limit their losses. That’s all well and good if Vingegaard does, in fact, manage to drop Pogačar in the Pyrenees or the Alps, but whether he can pull that off remains to be seen.

For now, he and Visma can kick back and enjoy the first rest day of the Tour, which will then resume on Tuesday with a sprinter’s stage.

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