Mont Blanc has for centuries inspired awe, fear and feelings of transcendence in those who have walked in its shadow. In centuries past, before Chamonix became a burgeoning ski destination, the local farmers knew it as ‘la montagne maudite’ – the accursed mountain. Later, romantic poets, 18th century cads, aristocratic chancers and Victorian cultural imperialists were drawn to western Europe’s highest peak like flies to honey. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an epic poem after the mountain, while the German poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once mistook the moonlight reflecting off the snowy summit of Mont Blanc for a mysterious celestial body in the sky. He wrote of the mountain and the experience, “A broad radiant body belonging to a higher sphere; it was difficult to believe that it had its roots in Earth.”
There are two radiant bodies in the 2023 Tour de France, whose 15th stage finished in Le Bettex, at Saint-Gervais, just below Mont Blanc, today. The race remains tightly balanced between Jonas Vingegaard, in the yellow jersey, and Tadej Pogačar. The Dane is still 10 seconds clear of his Slovenian rival in the GC, and both belong to a higher sphere – Carlos Rodríguez is the closest to them in third, over five minutes behind. Neither ceded nor gained any ground on stage 15, leaving the Tour perfectly poised going into the final rest day.
Pogačar and Vingegaard are running out of things to try, though with a time trial and two big mountain stages still to come, they are not yet out of time. Temperamentally, both are in their most dangerous position – Vingegaard is a naturally defensive rider who has barricaded himself into his slender lead and is starting to look threateningly solid. Pogačar is an aggressor by nature who has been chipping away for over a week now at the lead Vingegaard built on stage five. However, they are also each absorbing information about their opponent, especially Vingegaard. Pogačar might have left his attack two days ago on the Col du Grand Colombier until too late – he went with 450m to go and put four seconds, plus four bonus seconds, into Vingegaard, but missed out on second place, and a further two seconds, by a handful of metres.
On the Col de Joux Plane yesterday, he went too early, with 3.7km of the climb to go, and Vingegaard slowly pulled him back, though it took two kilometres. Today, the Slovenian went with just under a kilometre to go – perhaps the perfect compromise between his two previous attacks. However, this time Vingegaard matched him, for the first time in over a week, and even attempted to come around him in the final approach to the line.
The momentum in this year’s Tour was all with Pogačar between stage six to Cauterets and the Col du Grand Colombier; yesterday and today have seen a slowing in that momentum, to a stop, and perhaps an imperceptible tilt back in the direction of the defending champion.
Pogačar and Vingegaard are not the only radiant bodies belonging to a higher sphere in this Tour; their teams are also superior to everybody else in the race. Though they have taken turns in controlling the race – UAE spent almost all of stage 13 on the front of the peloton; Jumbo-Visma did the same yesterday; and today, Jumbo-Visma did most of the work before UAE took over on the final climb – they routinely outnumber their opposition. At the bottom of the Col de Joux Plane yesterday, there were a dozen riders left in contention – four Jumbo-Visma, four UAE, and four from the combined might of every other team. On the final climb to Le Bettex today, the final five – Vingegaard, Sepp Kuss, Pogačar, Adam Yates and Carlos Rodríguez – counted only one other rider from another team.
The dominant strength of the two teams, slightly tilted in favour of Jumbo-Visma, means that there’s less room for tactical riding. It is becoming a test of pure strength and resilience between the two main protagonists, and though theoretically UAE could send Adam Yates, fourth overall, up the road, or Jumbo-Visma Sepp Kuss, sixth, they know that the other team has the capacity to chase them down. Though Jumbo-Visma are riding for Vingegaard and UAE Emirates for Pogačar, it’s also true that both teams are effectively riding for both riders – it doesn’t matter to the two protagonists if one team or the other is setting the pace, either way the stage gets stripped down to a battle between the two of them.
The only nuance to that fact is that it is becoming increasingly clear that Jumbo-Visma are confident that Vingegaard’s resilience will be enough to contain Pogačar in the long run, and that the harder the race is, the less the Slovenian can engage his primary weapon – his punch.
The Comtesse Henriette d’Angeville, the second woman to climb Mont Blanc, in 1838, reportedly carved the words, ‘vouloir, c’est pouvoir’ (‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’) into the snow at the summit when she reached the top of the mountain. At this precise point in time, from his vantage point at Le Bettex, looking back over the previous two weeks of the Tour and ahead to the final week, Tadej Pogačar might disagree.