Work to do: Key GC support found wanting in the Tour's first mountain test

Many of Tadej Pogačar's key rivals were left isolated in the face of UAE Team Emirates's power on the Galibier

In the aftermath of the first proper mountain stage of the 2024 Tour de France, Jonas Vingegaard has little to worry about regarding his own form. He might have sustained a loss to his eternal rival Tadej Pogačar, but it was a moderate one, the kind he sustained many times during the first two weeks of last year’s race before landing the killer blows in the final week.

And the manner in which he lost the 50 seconds also need not be of too much concern. At the top of the Galibier he trailed Pogačar by only eight seconds, the majority of the deficit subsequently opening up on the descent. That’s not ideal, but this mountain stage is anomalous compared to the others in having such a steep descent to the finish — the other Alpine and Pyrenees stages all end with summit finishes. And given that it was on a downhill that Vingegaard suffered the horrific crash earlier this year that nearly forced him out of this Tour, to descend as well as he did today shows that he has recovered psychologically from the incident as well as physically.

Instead, Vingegaard’s main source of concern will be the performance of his Visma-Lease a Bike team. Much of what we witnessed today in the Pogačar versus Vingegaard duel evoked déjà vu from last year’s Tour de France, especially when the former dropped the latter towards the top of the Galibier, but only by a few bike-lengths as Vingegaard was careful not to go in the red. But one thing that contrasted starkly to 12 months ago was just how much weaker Vingegaard’s teammates were compared with Pogačar’s.

The day got off to a worrying start when Wout van Aert was dropped on the very first climb, clearly still short of his best form and unable to provide the kind of invaluable assistance he normally does. And once UAE Team Emirates started turning the screw on the Galibier, it wasn’t long until Vingegaard was left with just Matteo Jorgenson by his side. Things then got worse still when Jorgenson was dropped 4.5km from the summit, leaving Vingegaard isolated against the intimidating presence of Pogačar being swarmed by three UAE Team Emirates teammates, Juan Ayuso, João Almeida and Adam Yates.

It was clear that Visma-Lease a Bike are badly missing Sepp Kuss. The injured super-domestique has been a part of all seven of the team’s previous grand Tour victories, so, should Vingegaard ultimately manage to defend his title, this would be the first time they have managed to do so without him. Kuss might not be used as a plan-B in terms of GC candidate, but he invariably is one of the very last men remaining in the GC group on all the highest summits, either in a role of setting the pace to shed the group, or sticking by the side of his GC leader to protect them.

With Kuss absent and Van Aert off form, there is huge responsibility on the shoulders of Jorgenson to fill the void. The American’s form this year (which has seen him win Paris-Nice and podium at Critérium du Dauphiné) outlined him as a key domestique for Vingegaard, and, while he wasn’t quite able to perform at the level of Kuss on the Galibier today, his all-round ability means he has the advantage of being able to assist Vingegaard on all terrain, and not just the mountains.

And Crucially, he’s still only 3:21 down on GC, in 11th place. One of the consequences of today’s stage is that UAE Team Emirates have both Ayuso and Almeida in the top ten within 1:32 of the top of GC, meaning Visma-Lease a Bike have to worry about marking them should they attack, and not just Pogačar. While Jorgensen might not be quite so high up, he remains close enough to function as a card Visma-Lease a Bike can play should the race get tactical.

Tour de France 2024 stage four

Still, this was a bruising day for Visma-Lease a Bike compared with how they’re used to performing at Grand Tours. In fact, the only team other than UAE Team Emirates to have more than one rider still present once the decisive selection of eight was made on the Galibier was not Visma-Lease a Bike, but Soudal–Quick-Step. Sticking valiantly by Remco Evenepoel’s side virtually all the way to the top was Mikel Landa, sticking out as the old man in the group, the only one other than Primož Roglič aged over 27. He fell behind a bit on the descent, but the signs are that the Spaniard will be there to assist Evenepoel should the Belgian (who ends the day in the very strong position of second overall) ever struggle on one of the big mountains. So far, Soudal–Quick-Step’s transformation to a GC team designed around Evenepoel is going well.

The same can’t be said of Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe and Primož Roglič. This was a day of survival for the Slovenian, who of the eight riders left in the lead group on the Galibier appeared to be struggling the most. He ultimately came through it unscathed, finishing fourth in the sprint behind Pogačar, but isolated. Much was expected of Aleksandr Vlasov and Jai Hindley, especially after they managed to control the Critérium du Dauphiné to ensure Roglič was victorious, but both were dropped early on the Galibier, and now lie 14th and 18th on GC at 3:44 and 4:40 respectively. Both are capable of being much better, and will need to be if Roglič is to get the support he needs to still challenge for yellow.

The other team at the forefront of the race was Ineos Grenadiers. Carlos Rodríguez was very impressive, making the eight-man selection on the Galbier, then flying down the descent to drop the others and catch Evenepoel and Vingegaard (who had gone clear over the top of the climb). The ride showed he’s climbing with the best and has an edge on the descent, while the presence of both Egan Bernal and, somewhat surprisingly given his excursions at the Giro d’Italia, Geraint Thomas, he’ll be well-supported in the mountain stages to come. A podium finish and / or the white jersey is very much on the cards for the 23-year-old Spaniard.

Between them, the five aforementioned teams account for 12 of the riders currently in the top 14 on GC, underlining how they are easily the strongest. But while Visma-Lease a Bike, Soudal–Quick-Step, Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe and Ineos Grenadiers have two each, UAE Team Emirates have four. Right now they are the outstanding team, and have put Pogačar in a very strong position.

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