Question: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Answer: Carlos Rodríguez wins. Plus, also, the immovable object (Jonas Vingegaard) takes an extra second in time bonuses from the unstoppable force (Tadej Pogačar).
As the 2023 Tour de France approaches its second rest day, the gap between its two main protagonists remains perilously narrow, and the tightness of the match between them could be symbolised by the single second that Vingegaard chiselled out of Pogačar in a brutal first stage in the Alps, to extend his GC lead to 10 seconds. As the pair fought themselves to a virtual standstill, they took their eye off Ineos Grenadiers’ Rodríguez, who pulled back a minute over the top of the Col de Joux Plane, then dropped them on the descent.
Rodríguez’s aero tuck and speed as he hurtled down into Morzine called to mind one of the Alpine town’s most famous sons, the late Jean Vuarnet, gold medallist in the 1960 Winter Olympic downhill skiing event. Vuarnet was an innovator who came up with the first real aero tuck position for skiers, which he called ‘l’oeuf’, or ‘the egg’, and he created the ski station of Avoriaz, an occasional summit finish in the Tour. He also had a post-skiing career as a sunglasses designer, and his most famous pair, the Vuarnet Legend 03, sat on the nose of The Dude, in The Big Lebowski. Behind Rodríguez, Pogačar tried to get rid of Vingegaard, but the Dane abided in his slipstream. It was ironic that a day that had been defined by the suffocating pace one team had set on the climbs and by the clear superiority of Vingegaard and Pogačar, ended up being won on a descent by neither.
Of the two, the Slovenian has more cause for disappointment, and stage 14, between Annemasse and Morzine, culminating in the climb and descent of the Joux Plane, was a missed opportunity to gain time and maybe even take the yellow jersey. Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma team spent the day setting a fierce tempo up hill and down dale, testing out the hypothesis that Pogačar’s primary weapon – his punch – could be snuffed out by a hard day’s riding. As domestiques for UAE Team Emirates spent the day pouring cold water over their leader Pogačar to keep him cool in broiling temperatures that don’t suit him, so Jumbo-Visma attempted to pour cold water over the fiery attacks that saw the Slovenian put time into Vingegaard at La Cambasque, on the Puy de Dôme and on the Col du Grand Colombier. However, Jumbo-Visma’s work through almost the entire stage, which kept the break of the day on a parsimoniously short lead of no more than a minute, eventually succeeded in isolating… Vingegaard. On the Joux-Plane, with the lead group down to Sepp Kuss and Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma, Pogačar and Adam Yates of UAE, and Rodríguez, a surge by Yates distanced Kuss and Rodríguez, leaving Vingegaard on his own with two UAE riders.
Pogačar’s attack, a kilometre later, with 3.7km of the climb to go, distanced Vingegaard, but only by five seconds, and the Dane spent the next two kilometres patiently winching him back. Pogačar might have surmised from the last three mountain stages that he is climbing better than Vingegaard. However, Vingegaard tried a subtly different approach on the Joux Plane – just holding the gap and seeing if Pogačar would slow. And maybe that strategy of Jumbo-Visma had taken the sting out of the Slovenian's attack.
Once caught, Pogačar still had the advantage. He could rely on outsprinting Vingegaard for the eight bonus seconds (against five for second) at the top of the Joux Plane and again at the finish in Morzine (ten seconds against six), which would have reduced the gap in the GC to two seconds, and, just as importantly maintained the momentum that he has had since stage six. However, his jump at 500m to the top was blocked by two race motos, and he somehow allowed Vingegaard to pass him at the top.
Once Rodríguez had gone ahead, Yates caught Pogačar and Vingegaard as they approached Morzine, and if they’d had the mental acuity to work out that the difference in bonus seconds between second and third (six and four seconds) was two, and the difference between third and fourth (four and zero seconds) was four, they might have put Yates ahead for second place. As it was, Pogačar duly outsprinted Vingegaard for second, gaining back two of the three seconds he’d conceded atop the Joux-Plane.
The 2023 Tour is more finely poised, between two equally strong but subtly different protagonists, than any since the legendary and historic 1989 race. Pogačar has shown no weakness since he conceded a minute in Laruns on stage five, while Vingegaard has conceded time on a few climbs, but not more than a handful of seconds since the 24 he lost at La Cambasque. The two are also trying different approaches. On the Col du Grand Colombier, Pogačar’s team set the pace for the whole day, and though he left his attack late, he gained four seconds in time, and four bonus seconds. Today in Morzine, Jumbo-Visma tried to pre-empt the Slovenian’s punch. Vingegaard knows by now that on a steeper climb, he’ll lose a little time to Pogačar, but also that if the climb is longer, he can peg him back.
As it stands, Pogačar needs to be aggressive, but he can also look at the upcoming stages and see that the terrain still might suit him, if he times his efforts better. The finishing climb to St-Gervais tomorrow has a final kilometre at 9%; the Col de la Loze on stage 17 is steepest at the top, and the final kilometre to the altiport in Courchevel is also steep. Maybe the rolling middle mountains of stage 20 to Le Markstein suit Vingegaard and his strong team better, and as for the time trial on stage 16, Vingegaard has enjoyed recent good form in time trials, but there are punchy climbs on the parcours, and Pogačar has form in late Tour time trials with punchy climbs.
However, with 10 seconds between the two, the margins are impossibly tight, and after gains by both in the first week which were measured in tens of seconds; they are now at the point where neither can gain more than a few seconds on the other. The best Tour since 1989? That’s a matter for subjective judgement, and there’s still a week to go. But it’s certainly looking like the closest.