With the Netflix documentary Tour de France: Unchained so fresh in our minds, it’s hard not to wonder at the shape of its second season. The first two stages of the 2023 Tour de France have been ripe with stories, from Pello Bilbao’s promise to continue Gino Mäder’s legacy to a duel between twins for the yellow jersey, an early race-ending crash for two GC contenders to a first French win ahead of a pack caught off guard … And that’s just a start.
One of the most memorable episodes of Unchained depicted apparent intra-team friction between stage hunter-cum-domestique Wout van Aert and eventual overall champion Jonas Vingegaard, something about which Van Aert himself spoke critically in the days after the series aired last month.
But now, with that particular storyline reverberating through the cycling bubble, the events of Sunday’s stage 2 earned an edge we might have paid less attention to before watching the documentary.
Only about 25 riders survived to contest Sunday’s finish after the final climb of Jaizkibel, and with Van Aert the only fast man to make the cut, attacks flew in the run-in to San Sébastián, putting his team under immense pressure.
It fell to Wilco Kelderman and Tiesj Benoot to mark the many moves as opportunists attempted to snatch the stage from Jumbo-Visma’s clutches, and they did a fine job. That is, until the final kilometre when Victor Lafay – the Frenchman who impressed in the company of Vingegaard and Pogačar yesterday – accelerated hard.
The Jumbo-Visma-led reduced bunch watched him surge forward, their collective cogs turned, and after a moment’s hesitation, they went after their quarry. But it was too late and Lafay held on to take victory just as Van Aert entered his shadow.
The Belgian was furious. Rarely does a sprint go by without at least one rider’s handlebars suffering a sound beating, as Van Aert’s did as he crossed the line, but he was in such a rage that he then grabbed a bidon from his bottle cage and hurled it at the ground.
His hurt is understandable. Half a second less hesitation and Van Aert might have had it. Such was his frustration that he left the paddock alone in a team car rather than joining his teammates on the bus.
In lieu of any soundbites from Van Aert himself, many of his teammates were asked their thoughts at the finish, and there seemed to be a theme: if Vingegaard had done some work in the finale, maybe Van Aert would have won.
“This certainly hurts. I did so much work, and then …” Kelderman told NOS with a sigh. “You know, if a few jump each time, you close the gap twice. But then you still need someone to close the last gap.”
Benoot echoed this sentiment: “It is not easy to control such a group of top riders with only Wilco and me. It’s just not; it’s a shame.”
Kelderman was asked explicitly if Vingegaard could have made the difference.
“It’s hard to say. We need to take a look at this,” Kelderman went on. “You know, that’s the way it is, you can’t predict everything. It certainly could have made the difference today, then we would have had that victory in our pocket. But unfortunately it is not so.”
A victory in the pocket would mean more than a visit to the podium for Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma, whose consistent population of the top step affords a level of morale others can only dream of. With his own moment in the sun – like stage 1 for Adam Yates – Van Aert would be, if not indebted, then perhaps more free and willing to work for his GC leader having ticked off his own objective.
Vingegaard turned heads with his leadout for Christophe Laporte at the Critérium du Dauphiné a few weeks ago, so it’s reasonable to posit the idea that the same effort could be made here. But the Tour de France is a whole other kettle of fish; it’s day two of the biggest three-week race on the calendar, where Vingegaard hopes to double up last year’s success. What’s more, the team was well represented on the way into town, numbering four out of 25.
It’s also reasonable to assume that a lone attacker under the flamme rouge ought to be eminently catchable by the domestiques still around Van Aert.
“We are currently very disappointed that Wout did not win,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Grischa Niermann told Sporza. “It was very close. I was sure that Victor Lafay would still be caught and we are very disappointed, especially Wout himself. Lafay’s last attack was too much. If Wout went too early [to close the gap himself], Tadej Pogačar would have gone over him. Wout knew that too. He is disappointed and he should be.”
Though it was announced pre-Tour that Van Aert would not be chasing a green jersey defence – his second child is due at the end of the race so he may leave early to be with his family – there was never any doubt that he would go after more stage wins.
“You saw that last year. We don’t draw one card, Wout gets absolute freedom,” Niermann said. “And it will still work. Everyone was watching us in this final, understandably so. If we have to straighten everything out and counter, and we have one with whom we want to win the Tour, then it is difficult.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but at the same time, perhaps a curse, as Jumbo-Visma has found today.
“And if anyone made a mistake today, you must attribute it to me,” Niermann continued..” My focus is that Jonas needs to be in Tadej’s wheel. If I don’t make the call that Jonas had to drive behind Lafay … In hindsight [we could have used him], but I was convinced that Kelderman and Benoot would close the gap. It did not work.”
If we rewind a few kilometres to the descent off the Jaizkibel, Vingegaard was fairly clearly considering his Belgian teammate by not helping Pogačar in his flight from the reduced pack. That said, would a few kilometres of effort have damaged his chances in the coming weeks? When compared with the repeated early-race efforts of Pogačar, the like of which proved detrimental last year, Vingegaard’s keeping the powder dry seems reasonable. If they’d known in advance how close it would be, maybe just 500 metres on the front would have made a difference, but what can you do?
Vingegaard himself was pragmatic amidst all the finger pointing.
“I think it’s also not fair,” Vingegaard said. “I think I already did something for Wout. I could have been selfish and pulled with Pogačar, so in that case I was also kind of helping in that I didn’t pull.
“For me, I only have to focus on the GC. Of course, we have different goals. I think we’re all super disappointed, me as well, and we all wanted Wout to win today.”
Is there anything to read into the drama? Live coverage is not the same as a carefully edited Netflix documentary, but we’re still shown spectacle, we see social media reactions, and interviews are often conducted in an echo chamber that is not always conducive to accuracy. Short answer: probably not.
Ultimately, we’re dealing with twin truths: Van Aert is justified in being distinctly miffed by his team’s underestimation today, just as Vingegaard is within his rights to save his matches with the yellow jersey in Paris on his mind.
The chances are that the events at the end of stage 2 are just a storm in a teacup, and if anything, it’s a simple guarantee that the fire in Van Aert’s belly will be burning that bit brighter going into the next few stages.
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