The unfolding narrative of the 2023 Tour de France started with a big Tadej Pogačar-sized question mark hovering over the top of it. The two-time champ had been felled in last year’s Tour by the might of Jumbo-Visma, then by a broken wrist in this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and arrived in the Basque country for the Grand Depart with co-leadership, and The Question.
A stage in, that question appeared to have been answered: Pogačar is here to win, and may just have the legs to do it. By the end of stage 2 – having attacked again on the slopes of the Jaizkibel and arriving at San Sebastian with a select group – Pogačar looked even more assured.
In the other corner, we have Jonas Vingegaard: defending champion, in undisputed leadership at powerhouse Dutch team Jumbo-Visma. He’s been building single-mindedly to the Tour all season, rather than splitting his focus across the spring classics and rehab from broken bones, and has passed the Basque test with flying colours. The two were long touted as pre-race favourites, and two stages in, there’s clearly no reason to question any of that – and both of their teams look more or less equally dialled.
Two early hit-outs have set the scene. Yesterday, the Côte de Pike, almost 10% in gradient and 15 minutes from the finish of stage one, offered the Tour’s first GC fireworks as the two dominant teams of the race, Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma and Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates, rode side-by-side toward a wall of orange-clad Basque fans. It would prove to be UAE that would force the issue, building their efforts towards an attack. Pogačar’s teammates – Marc Soler, Mikkel Bjerg, Felix Großschartner, Adam Yates – had each pulled a turn, splintering the peloton a little further with each rider, and then Pogačar soared. Only Jonas Vingegaard and stage 2 winner Victor Lafay (Cofidis) could follow.
The Côte de Pike was never going to define the Tour de France, but it may prove prophetic – and twenty-four hours later, the longer but shallower Jaizkibel confirmed that prophecy. Pre-race favourites normally don’t show their hands until the high mountains, not in the glow of the Grand Depart, and this all feels like a premonition of what’s to come: glimpses of a duel that will likely build for the remainder of the race. This racing is Tours past, present, future: Pogačar digging at the front, Vingegaard dug in behind him, and daylight cracked open to the aspirations of the other team leaders.
Both climbs revealed more than the time gaps at the finish lines, and the fact that the GC still looks close is likely to be little comfort for Pogačar and Vingegaard’s rivals. Those first little shakedowns have revealed no weakness from Pogačar, who danced on the team bus before stage 1 began, celebrated for Yates as he crossed the line for yellow, and sprinted for the stage win a day later. The hierarchy at UAE seems healthy, too: with question marks over Pogačar’s wrist in the leadup, Yates was touted as co-leader – but even wearing yellow, he’s “here for Tadej, the boss … over the next few weeks I’m 100% for Tadej,” he said after his stage win yesterday. Vingegaard, too, has an exceptionally stacked team behind him, and showed at the Critérium du Dauphiné that he’s found a rich vein of form. Between the two of them, there are troubling omens for everyone else.
Tadej Pogačar is in an attacking mood, and he’s here to race, on a course that seems to suit boldness. Jonas Vingegaard is seemingly one of the few riders who can rattle Pogačar. Based on the first couple of short but telling hit-outs of the Tour, their rivals appear to be competing for the third step of the podium. There will be longer climbs and steeper climbs, but already the few seconds of advantage the duo has eked out at the summits of these Basque bergs seems destined to turn to minutes.
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