“In theory, Jonas can be a Grand Tour contender himself. He also has a good time trial. But he needs time for his development. In that regard, nothing is better than riding a Grand Tour with Steven [Kruijswijk] and Primož [Roglič], supporting them and also learning from them.”
These were the words of Jumbo–Visma sports director Grischa Niermann back when the team announced that Jonas Vingegaard would complete their Tour de France line-up in 2021. In hindsight, Niermann’s comments seem laughable. But he can’t be blamed for underestimating the talent of Vingegaard, it would be fair to say that much of the cycling community did the same.
The Danish rider was participating in his first Tour de France after making his Grand Tour debut in 2020. At such a young age, and with very little experience, it was a fair assumption that Vingegaard would play the role of a domestique, supporting his more accomplished colleagues. He was coming to the Tour to learn, but it quickly became clear that this is a rider who can learn very quickly.
Prior to the Tour de France, Vingegaard was already enjoying his breakout season. He won atop Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour in February before winning two stages and the general classification at Coppi e Bartali, where he defeated Ethan Hayter, Nick Schultz and his compatriot Mikkel Frølich Honoré. However, his most impressive performance perhaps occurred at the Itzulia Basque Country Tour.
The race quickly turned into a battle between two teams: UAE Team Emirates vs. Jumbo-Visma. The Dutch outfit gained the upper hand early when Primož Roglič won the opening time trial in Bilbao. UAE’s Brandon McNulty was second, Vingegaard sat just behind in third, whilst Pogačar was 28 seconds back in fifth.
With Roglič still in the leader’s jersey, a breakaway including both McNulty and Vingegaard escaped late on stage 4. Behind, Roglič and Pogačar marked each other, where they lost 49 seconds to the six escapees. After McNulty’s exceptional time trial, he and UAE Team Emirates inherited the leader’s jersey.
The final stage, which featured the revered Also de Arrate, presented Jumbo-Visma with a last opportunity to swing the tide and win the race. Roglič followed an Astana - Premier Tech attack on a descent with over 60km left, which placed UAE on the back foot. McNulty cracked, whilst Vingegaard marked Pogačar with ominous ease. Wherever Pogačar went, Vingegaard followed.
Ultimately, Roglič gifted stage victory to David Gaudu, knowing that with Pogačar and McNulty behind, he’d secured overall victory. It was a fine display from both Roglič and Vingegaard, and the least the Dane deserved was the young rider’s jersey, which he won ahead of Pogačar by 15 seconds.
Vingegaard descends Mont Ventoux (Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWpix)
As a country without high mountains, it’s rare for riders like Vingegaard to come from Denmark. The nation more commonly produces athletes with a talent for sprints or punchy classics. Vingegaard, though, was born to climb. At 60kg, he was made for the peaks, which helped the Dane to his country’s best result at the Tour since Bjarne Riis won in 1996.
Jumbo–Visma entered the race with ambitions to support Primož Roglič to a GC win. After last year’s heartbreak, where Pogačar snatched the yellow jersey on the penultimate stage, this year’s Tour was about vengeance. It was about redemption for Roglič. But plans were dashed when the Slovenian crashed in the early days of the race: he lost time to all his major competitors and fell rapidly down the GC.
It looked like it would be Wout van Aert who could save the day for Jumbo; he was second in GC at this point. In press releases, the team made it clear that Vingegaard would not be their leader, despite Roglič’s absence: “In the future we will set higher goals for Jonas in the Tour de France, but that will not be for this year,” they wrote. Roglič’s multiple injuries eventually forced him to retire after stage 8. This was the second blow to the Dutch outfit who’d already lost Robert Gesink on stage 3.
While his teammate, Van Aert, made headlines with hat trick of wins on Mont Ventoux, the time-trial bike and Champs-Élysées, the young Danish prodigy moved onto the podium. Vingegaard even distanced the yellow jersey over the second summit of Ventoux on stage 11, making him the only rider able to drop Pogačar in the mountains at the ‘21 Tour de France.
“I started the Tour in the service of Primož, but I had not dared to dream this,” Vingegaard said after a brutal Pyrenean stage. Working part-time in a fish factory only a couple of years ago, it’s fair to say that no one could have imagined his meteoric rise to the top. In a sport where mental fortitude can often be as important as physical strength, his ability to handle the pressure of his first Tour de France, and the fearlessness he demonstrated presents Vingegaard as a future Grand Tour winner.
Vingegaard’s success could well be classed as the most exciting story in the GC battle at this year’s Tour de France. Pogačar’s series of wins were majestic, but we came to expect them after a few mountain stages. This 24-year-old from Denmark, though: he made his Tour debut, he came in purely as a helper, yet he overcame all obstacles to announce himself as one of the most promising riders of his generation.
Vingegaard was deservedly handed a long-term contract with Jumbo-Visma after the Tour de France and is clearly ready to challenge for Grand Tours right now. However, in a team where Primož Roglič is the clear leader, opportunities will inevitably be more difficult to come by. Sepp Kuss, Steven Kruisjwijk and the ever-improving Tobias Foss will also hope for their own chances. Glancing to 2022 and beyond, for Jumbo-Visma, it’s a pleasant headache to have, but a headache nonetheless.
Perhaps, we could see Vingegaard heading to the Giro d’Italia for the first time in 2022, where he can be more certain of a leadership role, whilst Roglič chases that elusive Tour de France title again. Alternatively, Vingegaard could return to the Tour de France, where he surely deserves backing from the get go.