The narrative of last year’s Tour de France was shaped by the rivalry between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar. Ahead of the race, few people really believed that Vingegaard – who almost fell into the role of a general classification leader by accident – could usurp the two-time Tour de France winner. But when the Danish rider finished almost three minutes ahead of Pogačar on stage 11 atop the Col du Granon, everything changed. Vingegaard became one of the few riders in history who was able to pose a challenge to Pogačar. From that, a new rivalry was born.
Despite the intensity of the competition between the two riders, it appears that their relationship has always been respectful and amicable – think of their sportsmanlike handshake on the descent of stage 18 of last year’s Tour as they both had come close to crashing. Perhaps it’s a sort of shared respect between two riders who, quite frankly, know they have a level of talent that sets them apart from the rest. It is a testament to the gravity and importance of the Tour de France in the cycling calendar that the rivalry between Vingegaard and Pogačar has become such a well-documented one, despite the two actually racing against each other on very few occasions throughout their respective careers.
In just a few days time, both Vingegaard and Pogačar will go head-to-head at the 2023 edition of Paris-Nice and it will be the first time this season that they will race each other. Both have confirmed it’s a big goal and both have proven they are on top form during this season so far. Are there any clues to how the rivalry will unfold?
A brief history
Vingegaard really rose to prominence in the cycling world during the 2021 Tour de France, where he was promoted from a co-captain with Primož Roglič to Jumbo-Visma’s GC leader after his older team-mate left the race due to pain from an earlier crash. There was little expectation for the (then) 24-year-old Dane to really make a challenge for the yellow jersey, but Vingegaard surprised many by pushing Pogačar to the limits that year on the late mountain stages and beating him by nearly half a minute in the race’s final time trial. Pogačar still won the 2021 Tour de France by a hefty margin overall, but people knew Vingegaard’s name, alright.
The pair only raced against each other once again that season in the final Monument of the year, Il Lombardia. In that race, Pogačar took victory while Vingegaard finished two minutes behind him in 14th place, though the Dane had played a team role for Roglič who finished in fourth place.
In 2022, we were treated to one early season battle between the two riders at Tirreno-Adriatico, where Pogačar reigned supreme. He took the race lead after winning stage four to Bellante, narrowly outsprinting Vingegaard, but dealt a real blow on stage six to Carpegna where he put over a minute into his rival (and everyone else) on the final climb. The two didn’t race again last year until the Tour de France. Ahead of that race, all signs were pointing to Pogačar being dominant like he was in Tirreno a few months before. However, Vingegaard’s performances in the high mountains and Pogačar’s bad couple of days midway through the race meant that the Jumbo-Visma rider won the Tour by close to three minutes as the peloton rolled into Paris.
After Vingegaard eventually won that yellow jersey at the Tour de France last year, he had some time away from racing and only competed in the CRO Race and Il Lombardia in the later part of the year. Pogačar, comparatively, raced nine times after the Tour and won Il Lombardia for the second year running, while Vingegaard finished in 16th place.
When it comes to their season openings so far in 2023, Pogačar and Vingegaard have taken relatively similar approaches, but both have changed their calendars when compared to last year. In 2022, Vingegaard only raced two one-day events in France before Tirreno-Adriatico, while Pogačar raced in the UAE Tour and Strade Bianche. This year, they’ve both opted to take part in shorter stage races (Vingegaard at O Gran Camiño and Pogačar at Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol). Pogačar also took part in the one-day race, Jaén Paraiso Interior.
In both of their seasons so far, both riders have been unstoppable. Vingegaard won every single stage of O Gran Camiño, while Pogačar won three out of five stages at the Ruta del Sol (and the GC by over a minute). He pulled off one of his trademark, long-range solo attacks at Jaén Paraiso Interior to take the win in that race, too. When it comes to their form, both riders are clearly in top-shape and are placing a lot of focus on their campaigns at Paris-Nice. Pogačar won’t have wanted to skip his title defence at Strade Bianche for nothing, so Paris-Nice must sit high on his wishlist of races to add to his palmarès, while Vingegaard’s directeur sportif, Frans Maassen, told Danish website Feltet that Paris-Nice was a “big goal” for the team.
Can’t do it alone
The fact that there’s so little to separate each rider when it comes to form so far this year means that we can look to the team-mates they will each have surrounding them at Paris-Nice for as an indication of who might have the upper hand. Paris-Nice features a 32km team time trial so having a strong line-up is going to be important for all riders who are hoping to tackle the general classification.
With a team that could perhaps give him the advantage over Pogačar in this race, Vingegaard will be supported by individual time trial world champion Tobias Foss and former ITT world champion Rohan Dennis. Both of these riders will be able to pull huge turns in a team time trial and put Jumbo-Visma as firm favourites for victory on that stage. Nathan van Hooydonck and Christophe Laporte are two other strong riders who will be assets in the team time trial and will also be important for keeping Vingegaard safe in the flat stages and in the run-up to the main climbs of the race. Steven Kruijswijk is an incredibly experienced super-domestique who can help Vingegaard in the final throes of a mountain stage (he’s been a key part of Jumbo-Visma’s Grand Tour victories in the past).
When it comes to UAE Team Emirates, on the other hand, they have a significantly weaker line-up for the team time trial, with Pogačar looking like the best time triallist among them. However, it is worth noting that there’s a twist to the team time trial at Paris-Nice this year. Instead of taking the time of the fourth or fifth rider across the line, as is the case of most team time trials, officials will set the time taken to the first rider. That means teams can sacrifice more riders early, and then set up their fastest rider to sprint to the line, which may work in the favour of Pogačar.
In the mountains, Pogačar can rely on Rafał Majka to keep him company (a rider who has done a great job as a domestique for the Slovenian in Tours de France past). Domen Novak is another strong climber who can do some important work for the team in the mountains, while Matteo Trentin and Tim Wellens will be assets to Pogačar in the flatter or more rolling stages.
Both teams seem to be entering the race with Vingegaard and Pogačar as predetermined leaders. There’s been no talk of co-captaining with two options from either squads – a tactic which Jumbo-Visma has tried in the past – which makes this a clear cut, mano a mano battle between both riders. All signs are pointing to an exciting Paris-Nice and a revival of one of the most famous rivalries in today’s peloton. The last time we saw the winners of the last two editions of the Tour de France go head to head at Paris-Nice was in 1990 with Greg Lemond and Pedro Delgado, and, two decades later, the 2023 edition of the Race to the Sun could be another moment in cycling history. Who will come out on top? It’s not something we would like to place our bets on, but that’s what could make this race so exciting. The first proper general classification showdown of the season, let’s be having it.