There is to be no more talks of the close-fought rivalry. Or of the battle for bonus seconds. Or of how finely poised the time gaps are between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar are in this year’s Tour de France. Today, one rider won emphatically. It wasn’t nail-biting and it didn’t play into the narrative that the 2023 Tour de France might be one of the closest in the race’s history. Vingegaard put a stop to all that when he won the stage by almost two minutes ahead of Pogačar in a performance that will go down for the ages. He was, to put it simply, the very best.
The day after the rest day in a Grand Tour always comes with an unusual aura. Rider’s minds and bodies have had a rare chance to switch off and the brightness and harshness of the Tour as it starts at full volume again is a sort of shock, like waking up in the morning to bright sunlight glaring through the window. There was a real sense of sleepiness at the start of stage 16 of this year's Tour. Sam Welsford missed his start time and had to jog to his bike to begin his time trial. Alexander Kristoff tried to set off too early and had to plod off the start ramp bashfully to give way to the rider he had queue-jumped. John Degenkolb and Alexis Renard slipped out on the first corner of the course, with Degenkolb admitting afterwards that he had “no idea” what went wrong. Peter Sagan made the catch on former world U23 time trial champion Mikkel Bjerg.
Perhaps it is because one only really knows what to expect when the racing begins again in earnest after a day off: the routine has been broken, the pattern has been jolted, things are out of sorts. This is also true for the physical form that each rider has after a day off the race. Some soak up the recovery and roll off the start line the following day feeling fresher than ever. Others, however, aren’t so lucky. For those, the first kilometres of the stage are painful and tough. Sometimes the legs wake up as the day goes on, but if they don’t, everything can feel hard and laboured.
Image: A.S.O/Charly Lopez
As soon as Jonas Vingegaard waited to roll down the start ramp today, it was clear what impact the rest day had on the Jumbo-Visma rider. Licking his lips and puffing air in and out of his cheeks, Vingegaard looked alive. He looked ready to do something special. The opening few pedals strokes were fast and aggressive as he sprinted towards the first corner and railed it with speed and bravery. As Vingegaard tucked into his aero position, he found his rhythm: a slow yet powerful cadence. It felt as if you could almost see the watts being pushed through the pedals, his body was rock solid, slicing through the air with every bone and muscle movement visible through the bright yellow of his skinsuit.
There was to be no change at the foot of the final climb, no seconds wasted or risks taken by switching to a road bike. Vingegaard’s wide, gold visor covered his eyes as he roared up the ascent: a faceless assassin with no pain etched on his face. It was pure focus as he pressed on through the crowds of fans that lined the road. Today was not about them, it was not about the close-fought duel that some might have dreamed of seeing until the very end. It was about victory for Vingegaard. That final, definitive proof that he was the better rider. “Show the world you are the strongest,” Jumbo-Visma’s sports director screamed through the radio into his ear.
His mouth began to open as the finish line came into his vision – perhaps it was through the exhaustion of the effort or the shock of what he had just done – but the composure Vingegaard had held for the last 32 and a half minutes was only broken once the clock had stopped. Then, he allowed himself a brief moment of celebration, his body convulsing as he pulled his bars and punched the air with a visceral sense of joy and relief. Soon, however, it was back to business. Vingegaard downed the recovery drink, stopped his computer and got on his turbo trainer to recover. In his post-race interview, the Danish rider was back to earth, his responses to questions were careful and measured, he would not succumb to the temptation of agreeing with the notion that he’d won the Tour de France today.
Image: A.S.O/Pauline Ballet
“I surprised myself with the time trial I did, I didn’t expect it. There’s still a lot of stages to come in this Tour de France, we have to keep fighting these next few days and we are looking forward to it,” Vingegaard said. He spoke of how his time trial was methodically split into four parts so he could measure his effort to perfection. It was the words and attitude of a rider who seems to have been tailor-made to win Grand Tours. While his performance today caused uproar, it was historic, shocking, breathtaking and is making Vingegaard be compared to cycling greats, for the man himself, there is still a race to be won.
It is, perhaps, thanks to this very mindset that Vingegaard has the ability to put in performances like he did on stage 16. The Danish rider has come under fire in the past for his reserved manner and quiet demeanour in interviews, with some fans wanting the 26-year-old to show more of himself and give us more of a window into how he’s really feeling. But Vingegaard has a sharp and laser focus. He is at the Tour de France to win, not to entertain. Pulling on the yellow jersey again on the top step of the podium in Paris is what it is all about. He did not listen to those doubting him earlier in this race when Pogačar looked to have the upper-hand, nor did he take notice of the stories about inter-team drama earlier in this race, nor has he changed his personality or interview style based on the opinions of others. Vingegaard’s mind is as strong as his body.
He now leads the Tour de France with a margin of one minute and forty eight seconds ahead of Pogačar, yet the race is far from done. Difficult stages in the mountains await and his Slovenian competitor does not give up hope easily. There will be attacks, there will be drama and the road to Paris is long yet. Today was a step in the right direction, but Vingegaard will not truly prove to the world he is the strongest until the curtain is finally drawn on this year's show-stopping Grande Boucle. And no one knows that better than Vingegaard himself.
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix