The Tour’s culture war

Jonas Vingegaard won the 2023 Tour de France and looks set for an era of dominance, but his style has not been a hit with all fans

In the mid-1990s, many professional cyclists were afflicted by a condition known as the ‘Indurain Complex’. Patient zero was Gianni Bugno, a stylish but brittle Italian of immense class and questionable grinta who, having received a couple of Tour de France beatings at the hand of Miguel Indurain, seemed to give up in the face of the Spanish rider’s superiority and, especially, the thrashings he gave out in the time trials. The Indurain Complex was contagious: it spread to Tony Rominger soon after, and the Spaniard won five consecutive Tours.

The coming 12 months will be a key time to find out if the modern peloton and its best Grand Tour riders are going to develop a Vingegaard complex. The Danish rider’s performance in the 2023 Tour's stage 16 time trial to Combloux was the most dominant ride against the clock since Indurain’s heyday and Jan Ullrich in 1997. Indurain did a lot of good time trials at the Tour, but two stand out. In Luxembourg in 1992, he put 3:00 into the second-placed rider over 65km, and in Bergerac in 1994, he put 2:00 into the second-placed rider and 4:22 into third over 64km. Jan Ullrich won the 55km Saint-Étienne time trial in 1997 by 3:04. Vingegaard did a similar demolition job in stage 16: over 22km he put 1:38 into Tadej Pogačar and 2:51 into Wout van Aert. 

Read more: A thrilling Tour de France serves up one final twist on the Champs-Élysées

The result was made all the more shocking by the fact that until that point, Pogačar and Vingegaard had been separated by just a handful of seconds. That was the day that Jonas Vingegaard won the 2023 Tour, but the next day was when Tadej Pogačar lost it. The Slovenian cracked and lost 5:45 to his Danish rival over the Col de la Loze. His final deficit in Paris: 7:29. This is the second Tour in a row that Tadej Pogačar has thrown everything at Jonas Vingegaard, and the second Tour in which he has been soundly beaten. Apart from seconds chiselled out in the final kilometres of uphill finishes and a few bonus seconds here and there, Vingagaard has been impervious to the jabs and digs of the world’s best cyclist.

Jonas Vingegaard Tour de France 2023

The 2023 Tour was a clash of personalities, approaches, methodologies and philosophies, and its protagonists are opposites in quite profound ways. Tadej Pogačar is a warm, expressive, extroverted individual, and he is a warm, expressive extroverted cyclist. His tactics are aggressive and improvisatory. Jonas Vingegaard is cool, understated and introverted. Ditto his tactics, which are nothing revelatory – in marshalling a strong team to grind down the opposition and turn the race into a contest of attrition, he is doing nothing different, strategically, to US Postal, or Sky, in their heydays, though he and Jumbo are better than either. Physiologically, they are different. Pogačar is punchy; Vingegaard is a diesel. Their approach to the Tour has been entirely different also – while Vingegaard and Jumbo have been building solely to this race since the end of last year’s Tour, Pogačar has raced a full Classics season, making a good account of himself in Milan-Sanremo and actually winning the Tour of Flanders. The convenient metaphor is that Pogačar is the unstoppable force against Jonas Vingegaard’s immovable object.

There’s also a sense that they’re not bosom buddies, though it’s very rare for champions chasing the same goals to be able to get on. Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are famously cool towards each other; Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali feuded a little; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen studiously avoided each other through their racing careers. Footage has often been released of Vingegaard and Pogačar shaking hands after Tour stages both last year and this, but this has always been instigated by Pogačar, and there’s a sense that Vingegaard, deliberately or otherwise, barely reciprocates. The diffidence is, perhaps, the point.

The 2023 Tour holds up a mirror to cycling fans, and it’s as well to look into it and understand what the reflection is showing us. On a racing level, fans exist along a spectrum – some appreciate and admire winning, while others appreciate and admire attacking riding and entertainment. If winning is what you like, Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma are your guys, because they do a lot of it, and they’re very good at it. If you’re looking for entertainment, however, Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma are not your guys, because the idea of it doesn’t even enter into their thought processes. On the other hand, Tadej Pogačar is very entertaining – he posts rest-day videos of himself fooling around eating baguettes or somersaulting into a swimming pool. Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge got himself into a war of words late in the Tour with Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot, whose rider Thibaut Pinot is the very exemplification of entertainment-above-winning, about riders having a beer. There’s no beer at Jumbo-Visma, and the subtext is: we’re not here to have fun.

There was criticism during the Tour of Jumbo and Vingegaard for being opaque and inexpressive in press conferences, while riders at the Tour such as Matej Mohorič and Kasper Asgreen gave open, honest and engaging interviews after their stage wins. (The impression is that Jumbo-Visma would rather not do press – during one of Primož Roglič’s Vuelta wins, press conference questions were limited to three or four.)

And so cycling fans indulged in a mini-culture war over the 2023 Tour de France. Those who admired Vingegaard’s victory could not understand why others were so obsessed with Pogačar’s dramatic failure and joie-de-vivre, or Thibaut Pinot’s poignant last attempt at a stage win in the Vosges. Those who loved the passion and glorious failure of Pogačar were left cold by the clinical efficiency of Vingegaard and Jumbo’s approach. But as always, it was an inability to perceive things from the others’ point of view that provided the friction. 

However, for those who saw Vingegaard’s performance in the time trial and assumed that we’re in for several years of Danish dominance, there is hope. If Pogačar hadn’t seriously compromised his preparation by breaking his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, there is no doubt the 2023 Tour would have been a lot closer. If he were to go against type and focus on the Tour, Vingegaard should be worried. And also, while the TT result was spectacular, and Vingegaard put 1:51 into Adam Yates the next day over the Col de la Loze, he was dropped by Pello Bilbao on the steep climb to the finish in Courchevel. 

Now Jumbo-Visma will attempt to become the first team ever to win all three Grand Tours in a single season, with a reported roster of Vingegaard and Roglič at the Vuelta. And then, Vingegaard will approach the prospect of a Tour hat trick in 2024. He’ll be the favourite, but there was a lot to give Tadej Pogačar hope in the 2023 Tour, despite his defeat. The Slovenian’s stage win in the Vosges and attacking riding on the Champs-Élysées show that when it comes to the Vingegaard complex, he may be immune.

This feature was edited to correct the time deficit to Adam Yates on the Col de la Loze

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