Would 250 metres on the front of the bunch really make Jonas Vingegaard lose the Tour de France? He and Jumbo-Visma are starting to look like they think so. In stage two of this year’s race, Wout van Aert was so close to winning he could almost taste the sweetness of success. He finished second, though, because his full team was not willing to commit to pulling back a flying Victor Lafay who stormed up the road and took the win for Cofidis. Van Aert cleaned up the sprint from the group behind convincingly. On paper, he should have won from that group. With more manpower to help him bring back Lafay, he could have won. It wasn’t surprising he was banging his handlebars in frustration as he crossed the finish line.
The logic behind Jumbo-Visma’s decision to stop Vingegaard from pulling on the front of the group for Van Aert is clear. This is a three week race and energy conservation matters. The Danish rider has been on the defensive in these opening two days – doing enough to ensure none of his rivals gain time over him, but never putting in attacks or doing more work than is completely necessary. His and his team’s tactics have been a stark contrast to those of UAE Team Emirates, who rode on the front for the entire stage today with Tadej Pogačar unafraid to put in a dig and go for intermediate sprint points.
It was a similar story in last year’s Tour too, Pogačar would chip away at Vingegaard stage after stage, stealing seconds and time bonuses when he could, unafraid to use energy and light things up at the front of the bunch. Vingegaard, on the other hand, dealt one big, crucial blow on stage 11 to the Col du Granon and it worked. He dropped Pogačar and gained almost three minutes on him and the rest of his rivals. It was a winning formula, so why change it this year, right?
But last year’s Tour de France was not won by Vingegaard alone. Wout van Aert was one crucial part to the puzzle, acting as super domestique and often sacrificing his own chances to help his team. Take the famed Hautacam stage of last year’s Tour as an example. Van Aert got himself in the early break of the day and had a chance of taking victory while the general classification battle played out behind him, but he wasn’t thinking of his own success. Instead, he waited for Vingegaard and did a monstrous pull on the front to drop Pogačar and lead Vingegaard to the stage victory. The Danish rider even said it himself after the stage: “I have to thank all my teammates, they’re incredible. You see Wout van Aert dropping Tadej Pogačar in the end, Thanks so much to my teammates, I could never have done this without them.”
To take another victory in this year’s Tour de France, Vingegaard is going to need Van Aert to do everything he can to help Jumbo-Visma like he did last year. As the peloton reaches the high mountains, it is likely that Van Aert will do this, but the task of emptying himself for the success of another will be a lighter burden to carry if he has had some stage wins and chances himself along the way.
That is why Vingegaard’s decision to not help Van Aert to a stage win today was both crucial and unnecessary. All it would have taken to bring back Lafay is for Vingegaard to pull on the front for less than 500 metres. Just a few, hard pedal strokes. If Pogačar can sprint at the end of every stage and constantly attack, surely a short turn on the front won’t ruin Vingegaard’s Tour de France campaign? Riding conservatively is one thing, but looking at the bigger picture and thinking about the impact of these decisions on the team morale should be considered too. A stage win at La Grande Boucle is not insignificant for Van Aert.
No one is expecting Vingegaard to empty himself so early in the race for his teammate to get a stage win, but a short turn on the front is unlikely to impact how well he recovers from this stage. Van Aert had to do an extraordinary amount of work to try and get himself the stage win and the work he does for others should mean that his team puts him first when the opportunity to win is so clear and so close.
Time will tell if Jumbo-Visma’s conservative tactics pay off at the end of these three weeks and it’s possible that they will prove anyone critical of Vingegaard wrong if he pulls on the yellow jersey in Paris. However, it may be worth weighing up the impact of Van Aert being frustrated and not giving everything for Vingegaard in the mountains versus how much a 500 metre turn on the front would have impacted the Danish rider today. Either way, there are some interesting conversations to have on the Jumbo-Visma team bus this evening.