Cauterets has hosted finishes of the Tour de France on a not-so-regular basis since the 1950s and the town has never been one to decide the race. In 1953, Louison Bobet was still nine days away from securing yellow, while 36 years later Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond were trading the race lead every few days.
The race’s last two visits – in 1995 and 2015 – saw Miguel Indurain and Chris Froome almost three minutes clear of anyone else at the top of the general classification. This time around, on the earliest visit to the Pyrenean peak, it’s still any Tour de France overall contender‘s game, so long as you’re named Jonas Vingegaard or Tadej Pogačar.
The Tour de France’s all-too-brief and unusually early sojourn into the Pyrenees has concluded with two days of thrilling GC action centred around the duo. That’s what many of us would’ve long suspected heading into the race, though few would have predicted the circumstances and events of the two days.
On Wednesday the big question was ‘Is the Tour already over?’ as Vingegaard left his rival for dead on the Col de Marie Blanque, putting 1:04 into Pogačar. 24 hours later, the headline was ‘The Tour is back on’ as Pogačar struck back inside the final 3km of stage 6 to take back 28 seconds of that deficit.
That time, plus the 11 seconds Pogačar had gained on Vingegaard during the Basque Grand Départ, now leaves the pair separated by a mere 25 seconds with six mountain stages – plus the mountainous 22km time trial – left to tackle.
A reminder – there have been no rest days yet in this Tour, and the end of the first week still awaits in Bordeaux on Friday.
Questions about the state of Pogačar’s wrist and his relative lack of preparation – the time trial and road race at the Slovenian National Championships were his only race days since fracturing his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège – hit the top of the agenda in Laruns on Wednesday.
“The mood was good yesterday,” Pogačar’s teammate Matteo Trentin reported after the events of stage 6. “Of course, in the first minutes when we’re all together, we’re not smiling too much. But then we get together, do a small debrief of the race, and when we put everything on the scale, in the end, it wasn’t too much of a bad day. You see that today.”
Those questions about his team leader were swept away as he turned the tables on Vingegaard on the steepest slopes of the Route de Cambasque above Cauterets, darting away from the reigning champion on the 10% gradients inside the final 3km of the climb.
Wout van Aert had led the pair – plus the remains of the breakaway – up much of the climb, before Vingegaard did his thing 4.6km out, leading Pogačar along before he’d surely deal another killer blow to his rival. Right? Only the man in white had different ideas, blasting past 2.7km out and never looking back.
The gap slowly grew from seven seconds up to 13 under the flamme rouge and then over 20 by the finish. A day earlier, onlookers might have been defeatedly counting the seconds back to Pogačar as the Tour seemed to be morphing into a one-horse race. Now, though, the second horse is back in the running.
“Yesterday they got a really good advantage, and it would’ve been a surprise if they didn’t try to close the Tour completely. That’s what they tried to do,” Trentin said. “They tried but you see in sports sometimes it goes in your direction and sometimes not. It’s just the beginning of a super-nice Tour de France to see.”
The battle for third
For a brief period, it had looked as though another horse might be in the race, too, as 2022 Giro d’Italia champion Jai Hindley shot into yellow with a 20km solo effort from the breakaway in Laruns.
With Grand Tour-winning pedigree, the Australian’s 47-second advantage over Vingegaard (1:40 over Pogačar) was something to take seriously. Only his Bora-Hansgrohe team seemed to brief after the finish that he was still a race for the final podium place, with a stage and yellow ‘mission accomplished’ for the German team.
That assessment was proven right in Cauterets. Neither Hindley, nor any of the other GC hopefuls – Simon Yates, his brother and Pogačar’s teammate Adam, Carlos Rodríguez, Romain Bardet, David Gaudu or the rest – were any match for Vingegaard on the Tourmalet.
Hindley was among the best of them, coming home with Rodríguez – the young Spaniard steadily seizing the opportunity to lead Ineos Grenadiers – and Simon Yates, albeit 2:39 down on Pogačar.
Hindley now lies at 1:34 down on Vingegaard, and 1:09 behind Pogačar. That gap is realistically only likely to grow from here on out, but a time gap of 1:40 back to fourth-placed Simon Yates will only be pleasing. He is, at the end of the Pyrenees, the only man within two minutes of the ‘big two’.
Hindley is likely to be on the defensive for the remainder of the mountain stages this Tour, his third place already looking more comfortable than anyone who had predicted a big fight over the final podium spot might’ve expected.
Only two men lie within two minutes of Hindley, with only Adam Yates and Gaudu within three. It’ll take a mammoth effort to unseat him, regardless.
After stage 5, the briefing among riders, managers and directors was the classic maxim of “There’s still a long way to go until Paris”. That’s still true, perhaps even more so than it was then.