Marginal gains: was all that effort by UAE Team Emirates worth it for eight seconds?

Tadej Pogačar continued to chip away at Jonas Vingegaard’s lead, with the GC battle even more finely poised as the race enters its third weekend

The sunk cost fallacy is a common trope among pop psychologists, self-help enthusiasts and business bros which explains why people pursue sometimes hopeless endeavours. It appears that people are psychologically predisposed to carry on banging away at a task, no matter how fruitless or irrational, if they have already invested significant time or effort into it. It is why many of us finish bad books, or never leave cinemas halfway through the movie, even if we’re not enjoying it. It is why I watched the whole of stage four of the 2023 Tour de France to Nogaro.

At some point during stage 13 of the 2023 Tour, which finished on the Col du Grand Colombier, the rational thing for UAE Emirates to have done was to sit up. The break of the 137.8km stage went away after 26km and took 10km to build up a lead of a minute or so. It was at this point, with about 100km to ride, that UAE decided to ride. The problem was that it was a strong and committed break of 19 riders with some real quality contained within, including the eventual stage winner Michał Kwiatkowski – almost impossible to close down with only a handful of riders, and therefore UAE spent a lot of time on the front of the bunch and considerable effort, not only not closing down the break, but allowing it to slowly and steadily build a lead of four minutes as the race went into its final 25km.

UAE’s aim was for Tadej Pogačar to win the stage and take the 10 bonus seconds on offer to the first rider over the line. In principle, it was an okay idea. The form book has been favouring the Slovenian over his Danish rival Jonas Vingegaard – he put 24 seconds into him at La Cambasque in the Pyrenees, and eight on the Puy de Dôme. The Grand Colombier is an hors catégorie climb, but it has historically not been a place where big gaps are opened. In 2020, 11 riders finished within 34 seconds of the stage winner… Tadej Pogačar, so UAE must have surmised that the best they could hope for would be for Pogačar to stick another handful of seconds into Vingegaard somewhere near the top of the climb, and pick up the 10 bonus seconds. (Of course, if Vingegaard came second in this scenario, he’d have picked up six bonus seconds, so Pogačar’s gain would only be an extra four, but given how tight the margins are in this Tour, it might still be worth the effort.)

The Grand Colombier and its surrounding countryside was the setting for a seminal work of French science fiction, Maurice Renard’s 1911 novel Le Péril Bleu, in which invisible and vastly intelligent creatures called ‘Sarvants’ who live in the stratosphere start capturing humans for experimentation. Their consciousness transcends that of the humans who discover them. Their intelligence is simply incomprehensible to the human mind, and this last fact may have resonated with followers of the 2023 Tour when asking during and after stage 13 whether UAE’s tactics had been sublime incomprehensible genius, or a more flawed, human approach. In the end… we still don’t really know. Of the Grand Colombier, a threatening and foreboding presence in Le Péril Bleu, Renard wrote, “Its hostile slope prohibited climbing,” and the UAE climbing domestiques might have identified, because it quickly became clear that they were not going to catch the flying Kwiatkowski, and with several other riders still a long way ahead of the yellow jersey group, it looked like the time bonuses were a lost cause. It looked like all that effort, 100km of riding culminating in a 17km climb, was being put into Pogačar possibly putting a handful of seconds into Vingegaard. Maybe sitting up would have been the rational course of action.

Yet in the end, a desperate sprint by Pogačar over the last 450m of the climb enabled him to pick off all the escapees except Kwiatkowski and Lotto-Dstny’s Maxim Van Gils, and to drop Vingegaard. Ironically, the time bonus gain was identical to what it would have been had Pogačar and Vingegaard been sprinting for first place – a four-second bonus for third place, plus four more seconds of clear air between the two of them. Suddenly the sunk cost looked like it might be worth it, and it’s good psychological warfare to keep picking up bonus seconds – Pogačar has now amassed 30 so far this Tour, which is 19 more than Vingegaard, and the two are now only separated by nine seconds in the general classification.

On the upside, Pogačar is another eight seconds closer to Vingegaard, and the momentum continues to shift in his favour. The Slovenian has put time into the Dane in three uphill finishes, and five times in total this Tour, while Vingegaard’s only gain was the albeit large time gap he put into Pogačar on stage five in Laruns. On the other hand, Jumbo-Visma effectively had a day off today (or maybe they were tired from their own considerable efforts, for little gain, in stage 12). However, if Jumbo-Visma are saving themselves for a big effort in the Alpine stages, they still have to work out what to do about the fact that Pogačar currently looks stronger than Vingegaard. If they decide to ride on the front with a mountain train over the next few days, it’ll suit Pogačar just fine. In 2022, they ganged up on Pogačar on the Col du Galibier, with the two riders they still had high on the GC - Vingegaard and Roglič. This time round, they only have Vingegaard.

This Tour is still very finely poised, and the two main protagonists are engaged in a battle of worldviews. Pogačar is riding like he is trying to win the Tour; Vingegaard is riding like he is trying not to lose it. Eventually, one of these things will have to give, but both riders are now too invested in their strategies and have sunk too much time and effort into them to back out now.

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