I’m still trying to filter everything I witnessed during the final stage of the Tour de France in the Alps. We went up some of my favorite climbs, including the Cormet de Roselend which was as pristine as ever, with its picturesque chapel on the edge of a mountain lake. The stage finished with the daunting Col de la Loze, made even more impressive by the intense sea of fans.
But somewhere in between, we also witnessed the collapse of Tadej Pogačar. For many it was simply stunning. Sure, we had seen Pogačar falter before, but never collapse. Even after a disappointing time trial the day before, where he lost over a minute and a half to rival Jonas Vingegaard, no one really knew what to expect on stage 17 to the Courchevel altiport.
It is impossible to guess just what went wrong and when. That is for Pogačar and his team to analyse. But when I took this shot as the peloton hit the opening pitches of the Col de la Loze, I started to get an inkling of things to come.
I was already starting to wonder if and when he might launch the big attack to claw back the nearly two-minute deficit he had on Vingegaard. But at the moment I really started to question if he had it in him on this day.
It all happened very quickly and his teammate rode alongside Pogačar and doused a full bidon over his head. Perhaps they had communicated on the team’s radio, but there almost was a sense of desperation. The teammate didn’t hand Pogačar the bottle to use as he desired, but instead just opened it and poured, perhaps so that Pogačar didn’t have to use an ounce of extra energy taking his hands off the bars and pouring it himself.
A handful of kilometers later, Pogačar was still on Vinegegaard’s wheel as they raced through Meribel, but suddenly Radio Tour announced that Pogačar was at the back of the pack, and finally gapped.
Clearly Pogačar’s hopes of winning a third Tour were dashed. Now it was simply a question of survival. With only his teammate Marc Soler to pace him, Pogačar struggled up the ever-increasing pitches of the Col de la Loze. By the time he reached the final ramp up to the finish of the altiport, he was clearly empty, and perhaps even a bit confused, as he had yet to hit such a wall in his brief but stellar career.
When I look back over my images of the day, this image best captures the sense of chaos and collapse I witnessed with Pogačar, an amazing athlete, but also very human.