Another few grains of rice to tip the scales. Slowly but seemingly inexorably, Tadej Pogačar is inching towards Jonas Vingegaard’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France. The margins remain slender, but the Slovenian confirmed the direction of travel of the past week by clawing back another eight seconds atop the Grand Colombier on stage 13.
Much like at the Puy de Dôme last weekend, Pogačar had a touch more than Vingegaard once he unsheathed a sharp acceleration in the final 600m. Vingegaard didn’t bend, far less break, but he was simply unable to match Pogačar’s supersonic rhythm, conceding four seconds in real time plus another four in time bonuses.
History has shown that eight seconds can be all the difference in a race as tight as this one. The general classification in Paris will confirm the final value of the seconds won here, of course, but their psychological worth is already clear at this point.
“It’s not necessarily mental, it’s more about the legs,” UAE Team Emirates sports manager Matxin Joxean Fernandez insisted outside the team bus at the base of the climb in Culoz. “Taking some seconds is really good for us.”
In the overall standings, Pogačar is now just nine seconds off the maillot jaune but, perhaps as importantly, it was the third time in succession he has outlasted Vingegaard in a head-to-head at this race. At last year’s Tour, by contrast, Pogačar never once dropped Vingegaard despite the dizzying combinations of attacks he flung at the Dane in the Alps and Pyrenees.
Pogačar laid out his intentions for stage 13 from the outset, with his UAE Team Emirates squad driving the peloton for most of the afternoon and then sitting a blistering tempo on the 17km haul up the Grand Colombier. Although Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos) held on from the early break to take the stage, Pogačar’s brutal late acceleration still carried him to third place and four bonus seconds.
“In the end, it was a successful day for us. We took a couple of seconds back. It was a good day for us,” Pogačar said. “Even if it was not a victory, it was a victory in the battle for yellow a little bit, so yeah, we can take for sure big confidence from today.”
Friday’s stage in the Jura marked the first in a trio of mountainous days that bring the curtain down on the second week, and there was always a sense that the first instalment was tailored more to Pogačar’s talents as a puncheur than to Vingegaard’s gifts of endurance. UAE Team Emirates certainly seemed to race with that idea in mind, taking command in the bunch for most of the 137km before setting a brisk pace on the hors categorie climb to the line.
The efforts of Marc Soler, Felix Grosschartner and Rafal Majka helped to whittle down the yellow jersey group, where, for the first time in this race, UAE had a sizeable numerical advantage over Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma squad. They
When Pogačar’s teammate Adam Yates accelerated with 3km to go, however, it was Vingegaard’s deluxe domestique Sepp Kuss who temporarily stitched the group back together, only for Pogačar to rim the race apart at the seams again inside the final kilometre. Vingegaard was able to follow better than anyone else, of course, but not as closely as he would have liked, eventually letting Pogačar’s wheel escape his grasp within sight of the line.
“We made a plan for the order of the riders on the climbs, with Majka, Felix and Soler,” Fernandez said. “Obviously, the plan then was to try to attack with Adam for a surprise, so it was a really good performance. It’s still a strong Jumbo-Visma with Kuss and Jonas, as they showed, but in the last 600m, Tadej went full gas to close the gap on the break and he was to pick up seconds.”
Pogačar’s performance sees him plant another seed of doubt in Vingegaard’s mind, all while still leaving the Dane and his team with the weight of defending the yellow jersey, but Fernandez laughed off the idea that UAE had calculated to do as much before the stage began. In cycling, as in life, things are rarely as controlled or as perfectly calibrated as they seem.
“Never, you never calculate what to expect. This is not mathematics, it’s just decided with the legs and on the bike,” Fernandez said.
“Cycling is really simple: you don’t speak with the declarations or the interviews, you speak with the legs. Tadej was stronger today in what was the perfect area for him, the last half kilometre before the finish. He’s more of a puncher and was able to pick four seconds plus another four in bonuses. So eight seconds less.”
The eternal duel resumes on Saturday with one of the most demanding stages of the entire Tour, the 152km run to Morzine that brings the race over the Col de Cou, Col du Feu, Col de la Ramaz and Col de Joux Plane. If the Grand Colombier, where he already won in 2020, had the feel of home field advantage for Pogačar, Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma have made little secret of their appetite for the kind of day-long ordeal provided by stage 14.
“This weekend is really complicated: it’s the Alps, pure Alps. These are two important days coming up, but in the last three mountain stages, Tadej has been taking seconds,” Fernandez said.
After struggling on the Col de Marie Blanque on stage 5, Pogačar found himself already 53 seconds down on Vingegaard, who was seemingly on the cusp of teeing himself up for a surprisingly early match point. In the eight stages since, the momentum has been with Pogačar and the scoreboard has inched towards parity.
“The Tour is still long. It’s a good situation for us,” Pogačar said. “Now we go day by day and now we look for opportunities to take these kinds of seconds.”