Cycling is a sport in which noble defeats are often better remembered than all-conquering victories. From Raymond Poulidor to Primož Roglič, it’s the heartbreak of a near-miss that attracts the adoration and interest of the public more than the procession of a comfortable victory. That was certainly true during today’s stage at the Tour de France, a day that will surely be remembered as the one when the beloved heartbreaker-in-chief Thibaut Pinot came so close to achieving the perfect end of the emotional rollercoaster that has been his Tour de France career with a stage win in front of home crowds in his native Vosges. And it has been the case throughout the whole final week of this year’s Tour, where Tadej Pogačar’s dramatic collapse, rather than Jonas Vingegaard’s triumphs, has dominated the headlines.
Pogačar’s ‘I’m gone, I’m dead’ comments uttered on UAE Team Emirates’ radio as he was dropped on the Col de la Loze (a moment which alone justifies the addition of radios to the television coverage, making up for the mostly inane transmissions) caught the public and the media’s imagination in a way that Vingegaard’s waltz to victory that day did not. And even today, during what was essentially his crowning as Tour de France champion, was hijacked as Pogačar again stole the limelight by taking the stage win and completing his own redemption arc.
So, it’s time to pay Vingegaard his due for what, as we reflect upon the Tour as a whole, a truly exceptional overall victory. Maybe there ultimately wasn’t much drama or memorable moments during his victorious campaign, or any photogenic moments of him crossing the finish line with arms aloft (his only stage win came in the time trial), but was precisely because his victory was so comprehensive and lacking in any vulnerable moments. It said it all that, when asked by Sep Piquet what was his worst memory of the past three weeks, he simply couldn’t think of anything that had gone badly.
In the final week, he turned a yellow jersey race that had been defined by the inseparability of himself and Pogačar into the most dominant victory in a decade. It’s easy to forget that, just days ago, we were in all seriousness looking up whether it was possible for the Tour de France to end in a tie, so close was the margin between the two of them at the top of the general classification. Instead, notwithstanding any seconds he might lose celebrating over the Champs-Élysées tomorrow, his winning margin of 7-29 will be the biggest of any Tour since Vincenzo Nibali in 2014, while he’s also poised to become the first Tour winner to lead the third-place rider on GC by over 10 minutes since Jan Ullrich in 1997.
Another reason why Vingegaard might not have attracted so much attention for his victory is because of the mild-mannered, inexpressive persona he exhibits both on and off the bike. This is hardly something new at the Tour de France, which is often dominated by the kind winning machines who are almost robotic in their pursuit of success, and his cold, calculating manner is in keeping with past riders who have had the mental capacity to not just win the yellow jersey once, but return again and again to repeat that triumph.
In fact, there are many parallels between himself and the last serial winner of the yellow jersey, Chris Froome. Both made their Tour breakthrough finishing on the podium while riding as a domestique, (in Froome’s case Bradley Wiggins in 2012, in Vingegaard’s, Primož Roglič in 2020) before going on to eclipse their teammate and win the following year. Both are quiet, polite and undemonstrative off the bike, and ruthless calculating machines on it. They’re not only virtually undroppable on the climbs, but also peerless against the clock, and have no perceivable weakness. And in Jumbo-Visma, Vingegaard is riding for the successor’s to Froome’s formerly dominant Team Sky/Ineos Grenadiers, a team every bit as well-rounded and high in quality.
But there is one big difference between Vingegaard and Froome, a difference that will make his quest to follow in the Brit’s footsteps and win a third and fourth Tour title much more complicated — the fact that Vingegaard, unlike Froome, has a rival worthy of his talents in Tadej Pogačar. Once he overcame the internal threat within Team Sky of Bradley Wiggins, few riders were ever able to even get near to Froome. Nairo Quintana was a thorn in his side in the mountains during his first few wins before the Colombian’s form waned later in his career, while the runners-up in 2016 (Romain Bardet) and 2017 (Rigoberto Urán) never put him under any serious pressure. Alberto Contador could have been his great rival, but a mixture of ill-timed injuries and priorities elsewhere meant they never did have a real showdown at the Tour de France, and when Froome’s Tour winning streak did eventually come to an end in 2018 the yellow jersey was kept in-house with Geraint Thomas.
So long as Pogačar keeps riding the Tour, Vingegaard will never be as overwhelming a favourite as Froome was during his peak years. In fact, next year’s Tour de France is, in historical terms, already shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested ever, as one of the few times that two multiple winners of the yellow jersey will race against each other. And on the few occasions it has happened in recent history (Chris Froome v Alberto Contador in 2016 and 2017, Miguel Induráin v Greg LeMond in 1994, and Laurent Fignon v Bernard Hinault in 1985 and 1986 are the only times it’s happened in the last 40 years), the match-ups were unbalanced as one rider was past their best. Pogačar and Vingegaard, by contrast, are both still young, and should remain at the peak of their powers for some time yet.
Although Jacques Anquetil had Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx had Luis Ocaña, and Bernard Hinault had Joop Zoetemelk (and, if we are to include him, Lance Armstrong had Jan Ullrich), all of these rivalries were one-sided, with the serial champion always coming out on top against the hapless runner-up. By getting the better not once but twice of Pogačar, a rider who had been heralded as Merckx reborn, Vingegaard has elevated their rivalry to levels perhaps not seen since the days of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, at least in terms of sporting excellence. Vingegaard has won this edition, and the brilliance of that achievement must be appreciated for everything it is. But already we can’t wait for the next instalment.