On paper, it looks done. For the past 10 stages, Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar have slugged it out around France, equal to one another, taking a bit of time here and there, but pretty much on level terms. They weren’t separated by minutes, but by seconds. There was even talk of milliseconds being taken into account, should this gripping Tour de France come to a tie in Paris.
Not now. After stage 16’s lumpy and then mountain-top time trial, Vingegaard’s grip on yellow has gone from slender to clenched. Fixed, even. With five days remaining, just two of which are in the mountains, Vingegaard has a lead of 1:48 – an increase of 1:38 from overnight. In a conventional Tour de France, that would be substantial; in this Tour de France of fine margins and seconds, it’s seismic.
Pogačar has historically been the stronger of the two against the clock, but in the past two Tours Vingegaard has shown a growing dominance in the discipline. But the reason we write “on paper, it looks done” is because Vingegaard’s rival is Tadej Pogačar. He is a bike rider who wins, and second, to him, is most definitely the position of the first loser. We can expect, therefore, that Pogačar and his team will go, as they say, hell for leather on stage 17’s queen stage.
He cannot - and will not - sit on Vingegaard’s wheel all day, waiting to attack him in the final few kilometres of the Col de la Loze. He knows that if he is to reduce his deficit to give himself a chance of winning a third yellow in Saturday’s trip across the Vosges, he has to go from further out. He has to rip the race to pieces, and he will do.
Talk pre-time trial was not just about who would come out on top in this battle of the titans, but what would be better for the race. Vingegaard being so far ahead now forces Pogačar and his UAE team to go on the offensive. For the neutral craving drama, excitement and fireworks - all of us, then - this result is conducive to such a thing happening on Wednesday.
What works in Pogačar’s favour is that his team is significantly better than it's been before. Accusations have been levelled at them in previous Tours for failing to support him adequately, but that cannot be said this time around. Adam Yates, the MVP of this year’s race, sits third, and in Rafał Majka and Marc Soler they have another two superb mountain domestiques. It’s even a fair argument to suggest that Jumbo-Visma’s collection of eight riders ranks below UAE’s.
So what will happen? Pogačar, the boy who always smiles and the boy for whom bike racing is a game, is promising he’ll go for the kill. “Hopefully this was a day like on the Marie Blanque in the Pyrenees [when Vingegaard put 1:04 into Pogačar],” he said. “The next day I was much better at Cauterets. I repeat: it’s not over yet.”
And again, he delivered a message. “It’s definitely not over.” The weather, which could be wet, is part of his plan. “Especially if it’s raining tomorrow, I can promise you it’s going to be interesting. There are two more hard stages to come, the hardest of this Tour, and anything can happen.” Just in case Vingegaard, who was the most relaxed he’s ever been in a press conference afterwards, thinks it’s over, Pogačar reminded him that “anyone can have a bad day”. It was fighting talk.
However the race culminates, it can be said with absolute conviction that cycling now has a rivalry for the ages. Vingegaard is evidently now the better tester and Pogačar’s match, and sometimes nemesis, in the mountains; Pogačar, meanwhile, despite this dispiriting result, still remains the world’s best bike rider, the one rider who can illuminate a bike race like few others ever have.
He now knows that if he wants to add to his yellow jersey collection, he has to go to levels he never has before. And go to those levels he will. Second means absolutely nothing at all to the 24-year-old. It’s why this Tour de France is not over, and why stage 17 really is set to be the queen stage.