The attack that never came: Pogačar and his rivals hold fire in the Tour de France heat

Give its difficulty, stage one of the Tour de France was widely expected to see the first GC shake-up of this year's edition. But no attacks were forthcoming, not even from the offensive-minded Tadej Pogačar

Going into the Florence Grand Départ of the 2024 Tour de France, all eyes were on Tadej Pogačar, who, after the injury problems of the other major contenders, had emerged as the comfortable favourite to win the yellow jersey. His form at the Giro d'Italia, where he stormed to six stage wins and overall victory by over 10 minutes, had sent fear reverberating around the peloton, and his rivals waited with bated breath to witness what he had in store on the hills of northern Italy today. He shrugged off a Covid infection in between that race and this as a mild inconvenience, and claimed that he was feeling stronger than ever before.

But this was not the cannibalistic Pogačar of the Giro. Whereas that race he never passed up an opportunity to attack, today no such move was forthcoming. He sat in the bunch all day, content to preserve energy and wait for another day to gain time.

Few were expecting this. With so many doubts surrounding the fitness and form of Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike) going into the Tour in light of such a serious crash a few months ago, it was expected that the Slovenian would at least test the legs of the man who has defeated him in both the last two Tours de France. It’s rare Vingegaard ever appears weak, and, given the possibility of the Dane recovering and improving his shape deeper in the race, where the high mountains that suit him better await, it made sense to strike early.

And that did indeed seem to be UAE Team Emirates’ plan initially. On the Côte de Barbotto, the fourth-to-last climb of the day, they massed at the front of the peloton, taking over control from EF Education-EasyPost and upping the pace significantly. First with Tim Wellens, and then Pavel Sivakov, they set a fearsome tempo up the climb’s 7.6% slopes, shedding the peloton of puncheurs who might have fancied their chances of a stage win, and even a few outside GC favourites like Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain-Victorious).

But having reduced the peloton to a mere 40 riders or so by the top of that climb, they never returned to the front again. Instead Visma-Lease a Bike took over with a far steadier pace, riding tempo to control things rather than take the race on. UAE’s combination of super-domestiques and co-leaders Marc Soler, Juan Ayuso, João Almeida and Adam Yates instead waited in the wings, never, as had initially seemed to be the plan, setting Pogačar up for an attack. The race slowed down so much that the peloton did not even compete for the stage win, despite having brought the break so much closer during UAE’s stint at the front, Romain Bardet and his heroic Team DSM-Firmenich PostNL teammate Frank van den Broek the delighted benefactors of the lack of GC action.

So what happened? Speaking at the finish, the team’s manager Mauro Gianetti cited the day’s heat as a source of concern. Temperatures reached the mid-30s, and Pogačar has been known in the past to suffer in such an environment — most memorably last year, when his yellow jersey hopes came to an end on a hot stage 17 in the Alps. Whereas this wasn't a problem during the springtime Giro, the heat here can be seriously debilitating — just ask Mark Cavendish (if you’re feeling brave enough) after his horrible day in the saddle today. And having burnt himself out too early at previous Tours, he may not have wanted to tire himself out in such conditions so early in the race.

Yet the heat didn’t put UAE Team Emirates off making their move on the Côte de Barbotto. Rather than a pre-stage plan to respond to the heat by riding conservatively, it seems a decision was made mid-stage to change their course of action. And the most likely reason for that change is that one of their key riders, Juan Ayuso, was struggling.

Riding his first ever Tour de France stage, Ayuso’s problems were apparent on one of the following climbs, when he drifted to the back of the peloton and laboured to hang on. There have been doubts about his form given that he crashed out of Critérium du Dauphiné, his last race before the Tour, but this might nevertheless have taken the team by surprise. The fact Ayuso has finished third and fourth in both his previous Grand Tours makes him a card to play as a decoy GC option alongside Pogačar, and they would be loath to take him out of contention so early on, even if they do also have Yates and Almeida capable of staying similarly high up in GC.

Visma-Lease a Bike Tour de France 2024

Given that neither Vingegaard nor any of their other main GC rivals looked uncomfortable on the Côte de Barbotto, presumably the call was made to back down in order not to hurt Ayuso’s position. And in that sense they were successful — the young Spaniard was ultimately among the 46 riders that made it to the finish still in the peloton.

That will come as a relief for Visma-Lease a Bike, who will also be reasonably happy with how their line-up performed. There was an early setback as Wilco Kelderman became their latest crash victim, one of many this year, but he was still strong enough to both stay in the peloton and lead the chase to try to bring back the Team DSM-Firmenich PostNL riders at the end. That they didn’t manage to do so will be a source of frustration for Wout van Aert, especially considering that he ultimately won the sprint for third-place, but the fact he was able to do so was also a very encouraging indication of his form. Matteo Jorgenson also finished safely in the bunch, keeping his GC hopes intact. And, most importantly of all, Jonas Vingegaard didn’t lose any time.

The Tour was always unlikely to be settled in the opening few days, despite the outlandish predictions by some (among them Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot). Yet neither was the opening stage expected to be such a stalemate between the favourites. This bodes well for a closet fought-contest these next three weeks, where Pogačar won’t find matters anywhere near as easy as he did at the Giro.

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