For the vast majority of the 2022 Tour de France, the story of the race was of two elite contenders who were inseparable.
Everywhere the overwhelming pre-race favourite Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) went, last year’s runner-up Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) followed. When Pogačar sprinted for stage victory at the top of La Super Planche des Belles Filles on the race’s first summit finish, it was Vingegaard’s wheel he edged ahead of to take it; when he unleashed his viscous finishing kick on the uphill finishes at Longwy, Châtel and Megève during the first half of the race, the Dane remained glued to his wheel; and over the course of the two time trials in the race, they were exactly level on time.
The pattern was the same for most of the crucial stages in the mountain ranges, when the pair placed first and second atop Peyragudes in the Pyrenees, having also crossed the summit finishes at Alpe d’Huez and Montée Laurent Jalabert with no riders — let alone any time gaps — between them. All of these stages had been characterised by constant attacks from Pogačar, but each time he was marked by a yellow shadow each time that refused to budge.
At long last, on the final mountain of the whole race, the Hautacam, a rift opened up between them. Having once again tried and failed to drop his rival throughout the stage, Pogačar slipped away from the wheel of Vingegaard towards the top of the climb, the pace set by the indefatigable Wout van Aert proving to be too much. After a few more pedal strokes from the Belgian, Vingegaard roared away on his own, winning the stage in the yellow jersey with Pogačar trailing by a whole minute and four seconds. One again they were first and second, but this time there was a clear difference in quality.
It wasn’t on the Hautacam that the yellow jersey was won, however. Vingegaard’s move here was not that of a man striking out for glory, but merely confirming what had already by now appeared inevitable.
(Image: Zak Williams/SW Pix)
Rather, the fate of the yellow jersey was ultimately determined a week earlier, on the fateful Wednesday in the Alps, on the mighty cols of the Galibier and the Granon.
When we look back on footage of this Tour de France in future years, it’ll be tempting to remember it as primarily a battle of two individuals. With Vingegaard adorned in yellow and Pogačar wearing the white jersey, it was an aesthetically pleasing duel in which the pair caught the eye over the rest of the field, reminiscent of past battles between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, and later Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, in those same colours; only this time the man in white was the established champion defending his title, and the man in yellow was the young pretender challenging him.
But on the decisive stage 11 in the Alps, it was the performance of the riders’ respective teams, rather than them as individuals, that made the difference. On the slopes of the Col du Galibier, Jumbo-Visma launched an ambush for the ages, an attack that demonstrated what can be difficult for novices of the sport to understand — that bike racing is a team sport. Unlike all the attacks Vingegaard later had to fend off from Pogačar, the Slovenian had to mark two riders on the Galibier: Vingegaard and his teammate, Primož Roglič, a rider whose quality and Grand Tour-winning pedigree meant he could not be let go. Though he managed to follow each of their many attacks, he paid for that effort severely on the Col du Granon, where he was dramatically dropped and looked weaker than we’d ever previously seen him.
Pogačar conceded a total of 3-01 to Vingegaard that day, almost three times as much as he did on the Hautacam. This stage was the reason he spent the rest of the race on the back foot chasing in white while the Dane could ride a defensive race in yellow; and this stage was the principal explanation as to why, despite the pair spending so much of the Tour so evenly matched, the winning margin of 2-34 is the second biggest in the last six Tours.
Stage 11 was the moment Jumbo-Visma landed the killer blow in the race for the yellow jersey, but there were other equally important occasions where they rescued Vingegaard when he was in peril.
Most notably, they were on hand to assist him when he suffered a mechanical on stage five, the fate all the GC riders were dreading on the cobblestones. The incident initially led to chaotic scenes when multiple Jumbo-Visma riders demounted and swapped bikes with each other, but the important factor was that the team had the numbers to help assist Vingegaard, with Wout van Aert in particular proving to be worth his weight in gold.
(Image: Getty Images)
This would turn out to be the one occasion that Pogačar successfully escaped up the road ahead of him, but thanks largely to the monster turn from Van Aert, his gains were limited to a mere 13 seconds.
Another crisis threatened Jumbo-Visma at the end of the second week, when Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk abandoned in quick succession, leaving Vingegaard with just five teammates to protect his yellow jersey. But quality turned out to be more important than quantity during the final, and in particular Sepp Kuss, and — that man again — Van Aert, stepped up when needed.
Had Kuss not still been by his side once Pogačar started attacking on the Col de Spandelles during stage 18, Vingegaard might have begun to feel under serious pressure at being isolated and needing to cover moves, especially when Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) launched his own attack. But Kuss remained present to pace him up most of the way up the next climb of the Hautacam, and when the American was finished, Van Aert was on hand to drop back from up the road and take over (just as he had done two days earlier). That it was under the Belgian’s pace-setting that Pogačar was dropped on that climb underlined just how much of a team effort this Tour de France victory was.
Ineos Grenadiers might learn a thing or two from how Jumbo-Visma approached the race. The British team finished the Tour with a full roster of riders, and among them were some seriously on-form climbers, with Adam Yates ending the second week in the top five and Tom Pidcock in the top ten.
(Image: James Startt)
But whereas Jumbo-Visma used Roglič effectively to help break Pogačar on the Galibier before his injuries eventually stopped him from being a factor, Yates and Pidcock instead rode relatively conservatively and never looked to put either Pogačar or Vingegaard under any pressure. By the time Yates got ill and Pidcock cracked on stage 17, neither had done anything to help Geraint Thomas’ chances, who rode steadily to seal a third-place position. Given the form of the top two, it’s unlikely Thomas could have beaten them, but in the absence of any attempted attacks from the team, we’ll never know for sure.
As much of a team effort as this was from Jumbo-Visma, the yellow jersey still would not have been won had Vingegaard not had the legs to finish the job off. Not only has the previously invincible Pogačar at last met his match, he’s been beaten fair and square, and by some margin too. All the predictions that the Slovenian would go on to dominate the Tour for years to come have turned out to be wrong — Jonas Vingegaard is the Tour champion, and Pogačar is going to have to come up with something special to regain his title, in what could become one of the Tour’s great rivalries.
Cover image by James Startt