Tuesday, August 9, 2022

How Vingegaard broke Pogacar’s stranglehold at the Tour de France

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One of the beauties of the Tour de France is the countless ways to win it. Sometimes a driver bullies from start to finish, like Bernard Hinault who intimidated rivals with his presence on the way to Paris in 1981, beating them down at every opportunity. Time trial specialists tag rivals on the climbs and hurt them on the clock, as Miguel Indurain did vigorously in 1992 and again in 1994. Chris Froome used Team Sky’s stranglehold in the peloton to smother his opponents, while Tadej Pogacar’s back-to-back wins in 2020 and 2021 showcased his individual, unpredictable brilliance.

Jonas Vingegaard is the youngest man to win the Tour and for all his unfailing strength and resilience over the past three weeks, the race was won in a crucial hour in the Alps when Jumbo-Visma’s team tactics isolated and outsmarted Pogacar and the race outwitted Yellow Jersey from his back.

Head to head, there wasn’t much to choose between the two leading protagonists of this year’s captivating story. Both are capable time trialists, both strong climbers, both clearly able to handle the unique pressure that comes with leading a team on a grand tour. Pogacar had a slight boost of flat speed that helped him through stages seven and 17 and the more punchy legs that sent him rushing to victory on stage six when it looked like his race was losing. Vingegaard came out on top in the highest mountains, where he never cracked despite Pogacar’s best efforts.

But the crucial gap between them was forged on the 11th stage. On a scorching hot day across three of the toughest alpine climbs of this year’s race, Jumbo-Visma came up with a game plan to disrupt and destroy. The team set a tough pace at the head of the peloton that few could match, then launched a pincer attack on Pogacar while Vingegaard and Primoz Roglic took turns charging forward, putting him in pursuit or risking falling behind.

That alone might not have been enough to hurt Pogacar – who spent most of the day alone without the support of his Covid-exhausted UAE side Emirates – but decisively and perhaps foolishly, the reigning champion responded with some attacks of his own. Maybe Pogacar underestimated Vingegaard, or maybe he just took on the pride as he raced towards the final climb with the Dane in tow to conserve energy on his bike, and he couldn’t keep up any longer as they climbed the upper reaches of the Col du had climbed Granon.

This should not detract from Vingegaard’s victory. Offensive riding defined his early Grand Tour career and he did not want to pass up the opportunity to seek glory on this latest climb. “I took the chance,” Vingegaard explained later. “I didn’t know if he was suffering, but they told me on the radio that it was steeper with five kilometers to go and I thought, ‘Either they make it difficult or I’ll try to attack.’ So that’s what I did.” He kept kicking and Pogacar couldn’t react. After two and a half tours of commanding strength, Jumbo-Visma had finally cracked the Slovenian prodigy.

Vingegaard still had to endure enormous pressure on the remaining stages of the Tour, particularly in the Pyrenees. With nothing to lose, Pogacar attacked with a randomness that was unpredictable, forcing his rival to remain focused throughout, ready to chase with every pedal stroke. That focus and stress takes a huge psychological toll, but Vingegaard never missed a trick and it was the Dane who had the legs to win on Hautacam on a crucial 18th stage.

It’s been a rapid rise since Vingegaard joined Jumbo in 2019 as a dependable Domestique. He was unexpectedly promoted to team leadership during last year’s tour as a result of Roglic’s early fall and proved worthy of the role. But he has few major race wins to fall back on this season so the way he has gone from young challenger to consummate leader, winning La Drome Classic and runner-up at the Dauphiné has been hugely impressive.

For Jumbo-Visma it has been an incremental progress to this day. Since its inception in 1984 as Kwantum-Decosol, the Dutch team has always been a specialist in classics, racking up victories in races such as the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold. But since becoming Jumbo-Visma in 2019, the team has been the strongest challenger to Team Sky/Ineos’ stranglehold on the Tour de France and has moved from being purely stage-focused to being yellow-jersey-focused. Such is the talent of the team that they have had three consecutive podium finishes in Paris with three different riders while developing a winning habit at the Vuelta a España through Roglic’s dominance of the Spanish race.

This was a tour where the strongest rider won. But it was also a race that required precise, ruthless strategy to give him a platform on which to take control. Had Jumbo-Visma not thrown every possible weapon at level 11, Pogacar might not have cracked or shown vulnerability or ever given up the yellow jersey. There might not have been another moment when the stars aligned to do so much damage. After two years of dominance, Jumbo-Visma realized that strength in numbers would be crucial to breaking Pogacar’s hold. His plan was precise, his execution ruthless, and after all he is one of his riders at the top level of cycling.

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