With ten kilometres of stage 15 of the 2022 Tour de France remaining there were six riders from the Ineos Grenadiers in one line at the front of the peloton. They were easily noticeable, clad in bright yellow Kask helmets as they lead the team classification in this year’s race. It was clearly going to be a bunch sprint, but the whole Ineos Grenadiers contingent was at the front of the pack because they were protecting Geraint Thomas, who sits in third place in the general classification.
To the right of the British team was the yellow jersey wearer, Jonas Vingegaard. Despite coming into this Tour de France with one of the strongest teams on paper, the young Dane only had one team-mate in front of him. It’s lucky for Jumbo-Visma that this was Christophe Laporte, one of the strongest riders in the peloton. The Frenchman’s incredible ability to hold position – and put his nose in the wind when needed – meant that he could do the job just long enough to protect Vingegaard until the race hit the three-kilometre-to-go mark (after that point, any rider who has a crash or mishap is given the time of the stage winner.)
Christophe Laporte was the only rider helping Vingegaard in the final 10 kilometres of today's stage (Image: Zac Williams/SWPix)
One of the reasons why Vingegaard only had one team-mate to help him navigate through the precarious, hairy bunch sprint was because both Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk have left the race. Roglič stated he had been suffering from injuries that he sustained in earlier crashes and didn’t take to the start of stage 15, while Kruijswijk hit the deck midway through the stage, was hauled off the hot tarmac on a stretcher and into the back of an ambulance, nursing what looked like a broken collarbone.
Of course, the most obvious issue with these two riders leaving the race is that Vingegaard is now down two key domestiques for the final week of racing, which is filled with some incredibly difficult climbs. Straight after the rest day, the peloton will ride to Foix in stage 16, facing two first category climbs en route. Following that, it’s another mountainous route on stage 17 to Peyragudes before the route planner’s pièce de résistance on stage 18: a mountain top finish on the dreaded Hautacam climb (13.5km at 7.9 per cent average gradient).
The need for team-mates in these hilly stages is clear: Vingegaard will be left vulnerable to attacks from his rivals if he’s isolated on the climbs, and forced to chase everything down himself. If his team can’t set a hard pace in the mountains, attacks will be much more likely, making the race far harder to control.
But as this Tour de France has shown us, with its unpredictable, attacking racing, GC contenders have far more to worry about than just the mountain stages. Vingegaard was attacked by Tadej Pogačar in stage 14 which we thought would just be a transitional stage for the GC men and had to dig deep to close the gap to his rival. Today, in stage 15, he crashed hard, hitting his head on the burning road beneath him, and was forced to put in a huge effort to get back to the bunch – dropping the team-mates who were supposed to be helping him get there in the process.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
With Jumbo’s depleted roster, every single rider in the team needs to be dedicated to the GC cause. We saw Ineos Grenadiers do it today: all of them were at the front in the closing kilometres and they don’t even have the race lead to defend. It begs the question: should Wout van Aert have been allowed by his team to sprint for the win in stage 15?
It was a tightly fought battle to the line between the fast men – in which Van Aert eventually finished second – and the riders were sprinting handlebar to handlebar, wheel to wheel. The Belgian being in such a hairy situation put him at serious risk of crashing – the loss of Van Aert would be catastrophic to the team with the stages coming up – while his team leader is also with one less domestique to protect him during the run-in to the line.
Wearing the green jersey and with the ability to win multiple stages, it’s understandable that the Belgian wants to capitalise on his exceptional form in this year’s Tour de France: but is it at the risk of weakening Jumbo-Visma even further? For Vingegaard to win this Tour de France, his whole team needs to be dedicated to the cause.
The one man who can make us all question this notion – like he’s made us question many things that we thought what we knew about cycling with his performances in the last couple of years – is, of course, Tadej Pogačar. He’s been with a weakened team since the start of this Tour following multiple abandons of his team-mates, and often finds himself skirting the wheels alone in the front of the bunch.
But just because Pogačar can do it, it doesn’t mean that Vingegaard can too. Pogačar showed on the cobbles of stage five that he has a unique and exceptional ability to stay at the front under his own steam. What’s more, Pogačar has two Tour de France wins under his belt and, with this, comes an understanding of when to stay calm, and how to not waste energy in the race. Vingegaard’s surges as he closed down moves in the last two stages of the race, and his panic when he was chasing back to the bunch in stage 15, shows he hasn’t yet mastered the imperturbable calm that his Slovenian rival taunts his competitors with.
So the question remains, should Jumbo-Visma be worried about the team they are bringing into the final week of mountains? Perhaps they have faith in their 25-year-old leader that he’ll hang on to the wheel of Pogačar, regardless of the team support that surrounds him. Perhaps they have faith in riders like Sepp Kuss and Tiesj Benoot who remain in the race for the team.
Either way, Tadej Pogačar will not sit back and let the yellow jersey go without a fight in the Tour de France this year. Jumbo-Visma will need all eyes and ears on the Slovenian prodigy, and the casualties after today’s stage has made this a lot tougher for the Dutch team.
Cover image: Pauline Ballet/ASO