At the same point at last year’s Tour de France as we are now at the 2022 edition, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) already had an enormous lead over all of his rivals.
After making significant gains in the individual time trial, The Slovenian went on to absolutely pulverise the entire opposition with a long-range attack on the first Alpine stage of the race, landing an early knock-out blow that effectively ended the contest for the yellow jersey.
At that point, 2-01 was the gap between him in first and Ben O’Connor in second, and every other contender was over five minutes adrift — the kind of gaps that would be considered large at the end of a Grand Tour, let alone after just one week.
The same man might again end the first week at the top of the general classification, but the situation behind him this time is far closer. Whereas last year the third-place rider was 5-18 down on him, this year there are still 14 riders within that time, and eight of those riders are all closer than O’Connor’s deficit of 2-01 from second-place.
In short, although Pogačar has looked every bit as imperious as ever during the Tour so far, he has in no way made decisive gains in quite the manner he did last year, meaning the race remains a closely fought affair.
For now, at least. Granted, one of the reasons that Pogačar’s lead remains relatively manageable might simply be because there hasn’t yet been the terrain for him to do so. None of the mountainous stages compare in terms of difficulty to the fateful stage eight from last year where he made his devastating attack, while the opening time trial this year was less than half the length of the one won by him last year.
It could simply be that the defending champion is waiting for the bigger Alpine tests of the second week to really take firm control of the race. But there were also signs last week that Pogačar might have met a worthy opponent in Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).
The summit finish at Super Planche des Belles Filles, where Pogačar clawed Vingegaard back in the final metres to take victory by a fraction could be read two ways, depending on how much of an optimist or pessimist you are. On one hand, the fact Pogačar was able to take the stage victory even when it looked like he might at last be showing some vulnerability only serves to reinforce his apparent indestructibility. The way the Dane could barely move upon crossing the line, while his rival still had the energy to pedal and celebrate, suggested that even when Vingegaard spends every ounce of energy he has it still isn’t enough to defeat him.
But looked at another way, the very fact Vingegaard was able to put Pogačar under genuine pressure in the first place was encouraging from his point of view. Pogačar seemed taken by surprise by being gapped by Vingegaard upon his initial acceleration to the line, as if he had underestimated his strength. Remembering that the Jumbo-Visma rider did manage to (albeit only temporarily) drop Pogačar on Mont Ventoux last year, might the normally unflappable Slovenian be beginning to perceive his main rival for yellow with at least some degree of fear?
Then there is the disparity between their two teams to consider. George Bennett and in particular Rafał Majka might have supported him well on the climbs so far this Tour, but otherwise UAE Team Emirates have often been found wanting, leaving their leader totally isolated on the cobbles and lacking in its engine room.
Jumbo-Visma, by contrast, look absolutely formidable. They’ve always had multiple numbers towards the front on the climbs, and gave Pogačar a fright on stage three with an ambush that caught him napping and out of position, briefly gapping him.
That attack did not quite work out as Primož Roglič lost his teammate’s wheel, but might nonetheless form a blueprint going forward for how they might try and prize yellow away from Pogačar.
With Wout van Aert they have someone with unparalleled strength on flat terrain, and with Roglič they have one of the best climbers in the world, who, now he’s lost a few minutes, could be repurposed as the mother of all climbing super-domestiques for Vingegaard on the mountains (provided he’s not hurting too much from the crash that lost him the time). If they can use these riders to put Pogačar under pressure in all forms of terrain, then maybe, just maybe, he’ll crack.
An alliance between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers could also be just what the race needs to get interesting. Even after Dani Martínez tumbled out of GC contention during the final climb of yesterday’s stage, Ineos still have Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates and Tom Pidcock in the top seven and all within 1-46 of Pogačar. Given Thomas’ age, Yates’ patchy history in Grand Tours and Pidcock’s inexperience, none are likely to be a match for Pogačar mano y mano (although in the case of a super talented but unknown wildcard option like Pidcock, you just never know), but together they could give him some real headaches and provide his team with plenty of fires to have to put out.
You’d like to think that, given how much both teams have achieved in the past, they would not be content to settle for a podium finish. For the other riders up there on GC though, chasing a podium spot rather than the overall victory is more understandable.
Even retaining his current position of fifth would be a huge result for David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ). The Frenchman has been tipped for great things even since finishing second in the white jersey classification while riding in support of Thibaut Pinot at the 2019 Tour de France, but hasn’t yet quite made the expected breakthrough, having yet to crack the top ten at the Tour.
His older compatriot Romain Bardet (currently just one second behind Gaudu) might already have podium finishes at the Tour on his palmarès, but doing so again five years after the last would still be a fine achievement, considering how his career had appeared to be in decline.
And finally there’s Enric Mas (Movistar), the other rider within two minutes of Pogačar who has a proven Grand Tour pedigree. Having made the top six in each of his last two Tours, a podium finish would seem like the more realistic next step up.
If the final two weeks of this Tour are going to be exciting in terms of the race for yellow rather than just this battle for the podium, it’s up to Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers to make it so.