For a few tense, intriguing, and confounding minutes on the upper slopes of the Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc mountain that hosted the finish of stage 15, it seemed as though the Tadej Pogačar-Jonas Vingegaard supremacy that has so far reigned on the climbs of the 2023 Tour de France had at least been challenged by another individual: Adam Yates.
Just 2.5 km from the climb's summit, as Yates continued to set a searing pace with just UAE Team Emirates teammate Pogačar and yellow jersey Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) in toe, a gap suddenly opened up between Yates and the other two. Viewers looked on unsure as to what exactly was happening. Was it a tactical ploy from Pogačar, an intentional letting go of the wheel go in order to force Vingegaard to chase? Or was the Slovenian simply unable to keep up the pace?
His body language of being slightly hunched and staying in the saddle was certainly reminiscent of how he's looked on past bad days, so when Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadines) not only bridged up to them but also distanced him temporarily upon making the catch, it seems he might indeed be in trouble. And was Vingegaard's disinterest in testing Pogačar's potentially vulnerable legs with an attack, and the fact his tempo wasn't enough to bring back Yates, a sign that the Dane too was at his limit and being out-climbed by Yates?
We received a pretty comprehensive answer to these questions inside the final kilometre when Pogačar suddenly burst out of the saddle with one of his show-stopping explosive accelerations. Vingegaard appeared prepared for it, too, spending much of the previous kilometre looking anxiously over his shoulder waiting for this attack rather than planning his own. The defending champion had clearly believed Pogačar was bluffing, and the way he managed to stay glued to his rival's wheel when the attack came confirmed that he wasn't on the limit after all. Within moments of this attack, the significant margin Yates had established between himself and the pair was obliterated, and after being dropped in the final sprint for the line Yates ultimately lost 20 seconds to the pair.
Still, even if Yates wasn't on quite as spectacular a day as it first appeared, it was still an exceptional performance that moves him up to fourth overall, and within touching distance of the podium. With both Pogačar and Vingegaard operating at such an astonishingly high level, we should be careful to put into perspective how well the riders immediately behind them on GC have been going. Were he not competing against such super-humans, 22-year-old Rodríguez would be being hailed as cycling's next superstar for the way he's ridden these first two weeks (he goes into the rest day as best of the rest in third overall); Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) has re-found similar form that saw him win the Giro d'Italia last year; and it's fair to say that Yates is riding better than he ever has throughout his career.
That's some feat for a man who has enjoyed plenty of success since turning professional in 2014. He's been a regular GC contender in the major one-week stage races throughout his career, winning the Tour de Romandie and Volta a Catalunya and registering podium finishes at Critérium du Dauphiné and Tirreno-Adriatico; he's finished fourth overall at previous Tour de France (2016) and Vuelta a España (2021); and he's a successful Classics rider too, winning San Sebastian in 2015 and finishing third and fourth at the Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège respectively.
Yet for all this success, we've never before seen him ride this well with such regularity and consistency, and with such a significant contribution as a teammate on top. Up until now, he hasn't quite been able to sustain the form he's shown in shorter bursts (hence being so far unable to break a Grand Tour podium despite doing so so regularly in shorter stage races). Claiming a career-first stage win at a Grand Tour in Bilbao on the opening day of this year's Tour was certainly a major landmark for the 30-year-old, but many pundits didn't expect to see him stay that high up on the GC for long after taking the yellow jersey – after all, he'd started his previous two Tours de France in 2022 and 2020 similarly well only to fade to ninth overall by the end in each. But he's ended the second week in the ascendency rather than fatiguing, suggesting he might truly be coming into his own as a top Grand Tour contender.
This improvement certainly seems to have vindicated his decision to leave the Mitchelton Scott team (now Jayco-Alula) in 2020. His initial to Ineos was an immediate success, as he claimed the biggest stage race overall victory of his career at the Volta a Catalunya, before later equalling his highest Grand Tour finish with fourth at the Vuelta. This year, he's enjoyed even better legs following a move to UAE Team Emirates in 2021, flourishing as both a stage race leader with victory at the Tour de Romandie and second-place at the Dauphiné, and as a super-domestique for Pogačar.
What is next for Yates at this year's Tour? While helping Pogačar achieve overall victory clearly remains the primary objective, he must now surely harbour hopes of a podium finish for himself. He's just 19 seconds short from ousting Rodríguez of the third-place spot, which, if he continues riding as he did on Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc, is well within reach. UAE Team Emirates is also still talking up his role as a rider capable of putting Vingegaard under pressure by attacking and forcing the Dane to chase him, which could explain why Pogačar let Yates' wheel go on the climb, even if Yates did confirm afterwards that it had not been a plan. His 5:40 deficit to Vingegaard on GC might be substantial, but it's still small enough that Jumbo-Visma can't afford to be complacent should he try to get up the road. Either way, in whichever capacity the team chose to utilise him, Yates might just be the edge Pogačar needs to defeat Vingegaard in their historically close duel for the yellow jersey.