A Tour in the balance: who will blink first in the second week's crucial stages?

While some riders have showed their attacking intent already in the Tour de France, the second week may just draw out those who've held fire until now

The first week of the Tour de France treated us to the spectacle that has come to define the race over the last few years — that of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard thrillingly trading blows with one another. From Pogačar’s stinging attack on the Galibier, to the showdown in the time trial, to all the drama on yesterday’s gravel roads, the GC race has already been sporadically ignited, with this pair once again at the very centre of the action. 

While past rivalries in Tour history might have involved more venom and acrimony between the adversaries, or inspired more passionate divisive loyalties among fans, this one is characterised by longevity. Although famous, contests between, say, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, or Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, or Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, were only even short-lived, or flailed up occasionally. By contrast, last year Pogačar and Vingegaard made history by becoming the first two riders to occupy the top two spots on GC for three consecutive Tours; and the way things are going at this edition suggests they may extend that record by another year. 

So far, it’s advantage Pogačar. He wears the yellow jersey, and carries into the second week a lead of 1:15 over his Danish rival, the bulk of which was made on the ascent and descent of the Galibier, with the rest being made up in the time trial. He has also been, as is normally the case, the more aggressive of the two, attacking on the Côte de San Luca on stage two, Galiber on stage four, and multiple times on the gravel during stage nine. Yet while in the past such constant attacking has come across as over exuberance, for which he has been punished by tiring later in the race, this time there is sound logic to his approach. With Vingegaard expected to improve as the race goes on and he builds his form and fitness, there’s a sense Pogačar needs to make hay while the sun shines by striking early, especially on terrain that, like the punchy hills of the opening stages and gravel roads of Sunday, he is better suited to. 

Tadej Pogacar at the 2024 Tour de France

Vingegaard has been content to ride on the defensive up until now. He’s remained glued to his rival’s wheel throughout, staying alert and being careful to follow his every move. Though he rode similarly at last year’s Tour, he did occasionally trade the occasional counter-punch with an attack of his own, even during the pyrrhic war of the first week when they fought over just a handful of seconds. This year, the first week has been and gone without him making a single attack.

The defending champion has received criticism for these negative tactics, but, as with Pogačar’s aggression, his logic is hard to contest. For him, the opening week was about survival, and putting himself in a position to attack and try to take the yellow jersey later in the race when it’s hoped his form will improve, and the terrain suits him better. And while Remco Evenepoel’s comments about him lacking “the balls to race” during stage nine made for good fighting talk, they were unfair. Vingegaard has shown an outstanding amount of determination just to be at the Tour following the severity of his injuries prior to the race, as well as great bravery to continue descending so fast considering how he sustained those injuries on a downhill. And while his refusal to work with Evenepoel and Pogačar went clear on the gravel during stage nine, in some ways this was a more positive move than negative — Vingegaard wasn’t interested in working with his main rivals, even if it meant helping solidify his own spot in the top three of the general classification. These are the tactics of a man with his eyes solely on the yellow jersey, and not a mere podium finish. 

While Vingegaard stands in third place on GC at 1:15, he will have to come out of his shell and attack at some point if he is to win this Tour de France. The question is: when? The second week certainly offers opportunities for him to do so. There’s enough climbing during stage 11’s long trek through the Massif Central for it to be considered a GC day, but it still might be considered a little soon, and the climbs too punchy, for Vingegaard to fancy it.

Jonas Vingegaard 2024 Tour de France

Three days later, we can surely expect him to make a move. It’s here that the race enters the Pyrenees, the same terrain where he first took the yellow jersey last year. The weekend’s stages include back-to-back summit finishes of Pla d’Adet and Plateau de Beille, both of which are the kind of long, hard efforts Vingegaard so flourishes at, and aren’t mitigated by a downhill to the finish, where he lost so much time on stage four. These are the stages he’s been saving himself for, and his best opportunity to gain time.

Pogačar will be braced for this. You sense that Vingegaard is the one man he really fears, and his restless rides during the first week has been as much a result of the anxiety to strike against Vingegaard while he’s struggling as it is his own aggressive instincts. But one advantage he will have if and when Vingegaard does attack him in the Pyrenees is his team. Unlike the last two Tours, where the Dane has had the luxury of calling upon a team featuring Sepp Kuss, and in-for Wout van Aert, and other quality climbers to turn the screw when the Slovenian looks weak, this year it’s UAE Team Emirates who are stronger. Should Pogačar be put on the back foot on any of the summit finishes, he’ll have the likes of João Almeida, Juan Ayuso and Adam Yates to look after him and limit his losses. 

Much has been said about how Vingegaard will likely improve as he works his way into form, and Pogačar will slow down as fatigue from his Giro-winning ride inevitably takes hold, but the coming second week of the Tour will go some way to revealing how true these assumptions are. Add to the continuation of their great rivalry the still alive yellow jersey aspirations of Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) and Primož Roglič (Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe), some more bunch sprints, the battle between Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty) and Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and the many quality stage-hunters chasing glory from breakaways, and a thrilling second week is in store.

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