It’s far easier said with hindsight, but Jumbo-Visma, arguably the very best team in the world right now, made mistakes today at the Tour de France. It transpired that the events of yesterday’s stage, where they dropped Tadej Pogačar and convinced many that they had this race utterly under control, actually ended up being their downfall just 24 hours later. How? The simple power of underestimation.
We should all know by now that Pogačar is not a man who gives up. Time and time again he has fought back above expectations of him, proven the odds wrong and refused to accept defeat. He’s a thoroughbred racer who wants to win, there is no other option. If the chance is there, he will fight for it. The UAE Team Emirates rider proved that today as he attacked Jonas Vingegaard on the final climb to Cauterets during stage nine of the Tour, leaving the Jumbo-Visma rider alone, battling through the fans with not a teammate left to help him try and claw back Pogačar. And the harsh reality is, this is a situation that Jumbo-Visma could have avoided if they had played things a little differently.
The first error came on the Tourmalet; one of the Tour’s toughest and most iconic climbs. It’s an ascent that sits in a place of legend in the race’s history, home to so many triumphs and so many downfalls. Jumbo-Visma attacked the mountain bravely and their intentions were clear as they took over the pace-making from BORA-Hansgrohe mid-way up the climb. They sent five riders to the front clad in yellow and black, making their plan obvious: they were trying to break up the race and put others under pressure. To some extent, they succeeded.
The chase group on the descent of the Tourmalet (Image: James Startt)
Jai Hindley was dropped in the yellow jersey as Jumbo set their infernal pace, as were the other main GC contenders. One by one, riders from the world-beating Dutch team pulled their turns and one by one they then dropped to the back of the group. All that was left with three kilometres of the Tourmalet remaining was Sepp Kuss pacing Vingegaard, with Pogačar tight on his wheel. Wout van Aert sat further up the climb, a satellite rider placed in the breakaway of the day with the aim of dropping back to help Vingegaard over the top of the Tourmalet and through the valley roads towards the final climb of the day.
As the Tourmalet’s summit got closer, Vingegaard attacked with 1.5km of the climb to go. At this point, it made sense – he had to do it. After Pogačar’s downfall the day before, this move was about testing the Slovenian’s legs. If Pogačar was on another bad day and lost contact here, then had to chase through the valley and up the final climb alone, the time losses would have been huge and the Tour could have been in Vingegaard’s hands still with two weeks of racing to go. But, unlike yesterday, Pogačar sat tight to the wheel of his rival, looking calm, collected and unmoving. The plan had not worked, Pogačar was stronger today, they could not drop him on the Tourmalet.
So then they knew. And then came the second mistake. Rather than waiting over the top of the climb for the likes of Kuss to regain contact with the duo (who, by this point, had refound Van Aert and the remnants of the breakaway), Vingegaard and Van Aert decided to press on. Yes, they were putting time into the likes of Hindley who struggled behind, but their Jumbo-Visma teammates were disappearing further and further down the valley road behind them, too.
Pogačar and Vingegaard descend together down the Tourmalet (Image: James Startt)
As the final climb began, Van Aert did his last, strong pulls on the front, and then it was only Pogačar and Vingegaard who remained, mano a mano, like they have been so many times before. When Pogačar made his move as the summit approached, he did it quickly and stealthily, when Vingegaard almost seemed to be looking the wrong way entirely. If he had reacted and got on the wheel of Pogačar faster, he might have even managed to stay with him to the line. Alternatively, if Vinegaard had teammates to help him remaining when Pogačar made that move, a rider like Kuss could have chased Pogačar down himself. Instead, Jumbo-Visma's domestiques had all been used up on the Tourmalet. They were sent to work in the stage far too early in an attempted power move which backfired. All it ended up doing was leaving Vingegaard isolated at the end, wasting the legs of his strong teammates who could have been of far more use to the Dane on the final climb instead and giving Pogačar a free ride.
The situation that these mistakes have left Jumbo-Visma in isn’t a particularly strong one, either. Vingegaard did take the yellow jersey, but leads Pogačar by only 25-seconds. It’s now up to the Dutch team to ride on the front in the upcoming sprint stages, using yet more energy and remaining on the offensive from sly attacks from Pogačar.
Today’s stage was by no means a huge disaster for Jumbo, but there were tactical errors made on their behalf. Of course, they had to test Pogačar and they had to try to do something (as fans, we can appreciate that, too). If the assault on the Tourmalet had succeeded in dropping the Slovenian rider, it would be a very different story we would be writing about today. But they saw Pogačar’s strength and it was clear their strategy wasn’t working early enough for them to change it. In cycling, a back-up plan is always necessary and Jumbo-Visma didn’t enact one today. Pogačar would likely have won atop the Cauterets climb in the end regardless, but it could have been bonus seconds lost for Jumbo-Visma, rather than 24-seconds in the end.
The eventual lesson of the day? Do not underestimate Tadej Pogačar.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix