When Tadej Pogačar lifted himself from the saddle 550 metres or so from the summit of the Col de Joux Plane on stage 14 of the Tour de France, it should have been clear to everybody on the mountainside that he was preparing to accelerate with the force of a thousand suns. He had done precisely the same thing at more or less the same spot on the Grand Colombier the previous afternoon, after all.
Yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), who could sense his rival moving with intent on his shoulder, was certainly braced for impact, but the pair of motorbikes travelling a small distance in front of the two leaders seemed to be completely unprepared for Pogačar’s sudden launch. Their failure to increase their pace when Pogačar attacked meant the Slovenian was forced to brake and desist barely 40m into his effort.
Worse was to follow for Pogačar, who was then caught flat footed in the closing metres of the mountain, where Vingegaard outkicked him for the full quota of bonus seconds at the summit, temporarily adding three seconds to his advantage in the overall standings.
Pogačar surged in response at the top of the descent, though the pair were later caught and passed by Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) on the fast drop into Morzine. The Spaniard took the stage, while Pogačar beat Vingegaard to second place, snatching back two bonus seconds of his own.
This day of perpetual motion in the Alps had a little bit of everything, including a protracted early neutralisation due a crash, a show of force from Jumbo-Visma for much of the day, and a grand offensive from Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates on the Col de Joux Plane. And yet, when the music stopped, the top two stood more or less as they were, with Pogačar’s overall deficit inching out to 10 seconds.
As Pogačar made his way through the mixed zone in Morzine after receiving a fresh white jersey, however, that contentious moment atop the Col de Joux Plane was the primary topic of discussion. A very brief wobble after missing out on the 2022 Tour of Flanders aside, however, Pogačar has never been much given to public polemic, and he again opted for understatement in his assessment of this episode.
“It was a wasted bullet after already such big climbs,” Pogačar said. “To do one sprint for nothing is a bit of a shame, but I don’t think it’s going to change the final outcome. It stayed in the legs, and I couldn’t sprint for the bonus. OK, I messed it up a little bit. But it is what is.”
Outside the team bus on the Route de la Plagne, UAE Team Emirates general manager Mauro Gianetti also opted for a diplomatic line. “It’s a pity when the race is affected something by other than the legs,” he said carefully.
Sports Manager Matxin Joxean Fernandez hinted at a little more frustration at the incident. “It’s the circumstance,” he said. “It’s the rules of the UCI that cars have to be 25 metres behind in a time trial, so [for motorbikes to be] two metres in front is unacceptable.”
The Tour’s entry in the Alps was expected to mark a new phase in the race, but instead it told us precious little that we didn’t already know: Vingegaard and Pogačar are in a class entirely of their own and there is still next to nothing to separate them. The balance of power of this race remains firmly in the eye of the beholder after this latest score draw.
On the penultimate climb of the Col de la Ramaz, where Vingegaard had a full complement of teammates at his disposal, it appeared as though Jumbo-Visma were preparing to conjure up an onslaught of the kind that turned the Tour on its head on the road to the Col du Granon a year ago.
The complexion of the afternoon shifted, however, 4.7km from the top of the Joux Plane, when Adam Yates launched an acceleration on Pogačar’s behalf that only Vingegaard could follow. 3.7km from the summit, Pogačar attacked alone, hitting 27kph despite the double-digit gradient.
Like at the Puy de Dôme and the Grand Colombier, his initial surge instantly opened a small advantage over Vingegaard. But, as on those climbs, the maillot jaune stuck calmly to the task of plugging the leak. The gap never extended beyond four seconds, and the inseparable duo were together once more inside the final 2km.
“I think it was a good day for us. We were really strong, and we tried,” Pogačar said. “OK, it was not a perfect day, but I think we saw a lot today, we learned a lot today and we go with positive mind into the next stages.
“Of course, it would be better if I dropped him and went solo to the finish line. But I must say today was a good day and I feel good, so I’ll go with a good mindset into the next days.”
Despite Pogačar’s concession of a second to Vingegaard, Fernandez insisted that the momentum of the duel had shifted even less on stage 14 than the gap atop the overall standings. “The momentum in this moment is the same as yesterday,” he said. “It’s only one second lost, but the battle continues.”
Pogačar and Vingegaard will, of course, do it all again on stage 15, which brings the Tour over the Col de la Croix Fry and Col des Aravis before the summit finish at Saint Gervais Mont Blanc. If the third successive mountain stage doesn’t separate them, then Tuesday’s short time trial might, though there is the increasing sense this duel might go all the way to next Saturday’s penultimate leg in the Vosges.
“There’s a really hard stage coming tomorrow, then a time trial, the Col de la Loze and also stage 20,” Pogačar said. “There are still four stages that can decide it. It’s going to be really tight, but I’m going confident into the next days.”