The Tour de France is not over after all

Tadej Pogačar turned the tables on new yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard by winning in Cautarets and closing to within 25 seconds of his lead

The curative waters of Cautarets have been making people well and rejuvenating their spirits since the 16th century, and especially since the 19th century, when the spa town became an important waypoint on the Route Thermale des Pyrénées, created by Napoléon III in the 1850s and attracting royalty, tourists, poets, rogues and dreamers. Artists and poets found in the wooded green mountains around the town the kinds of sublime landscapes that awoke their muse; in the restorative baths they salved the afflictions and ailments that blighted the artistic lifestyle. The painter Edgar Degas came to Cautarets in 1888 to sort out his bronchitis; the German romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who visited in the 1840s, never specified his illness, but it was slowly making him go blind.

Heine’s masterwork was an epic poem written in 1841 called Atta Troll, the subject of which was a dancing bear from Cautarets who led a revolution against human domination. Atta Troll was a thinly-veiled attack on God and egalitarianism, which might have resonated with Tadej Pogačar, the winner of the sixth stage of the 2023 Tour de France in Cautarets. Pogačar made a thinly-veiled attack on Jonas Vingegaard, who had exercised God-like dominance on the race the day before in Laruns, with 2.7km of the final climb above Cautarets to go. As for egalitarianism, the 2023 Tour suddenly looks like there is not much to choose between Pogačar and Vingegaard.

One of the early verses of Atta Troll reads: “Atta Troll, who once resided / Like a prince of wildernesses / Free atop the lofty mountains / Dances now before the rabble”. Though Vingegaard and his Jumbo-Visma team had ridden all day as if they expected to set Vingegaard free atop the lofty climb of La Cambasque and put the Tour beyond anybody else’s reach by the end of the day, it was Pogačar, dancing on his pedals among the rabble of fans filling the air with smoke bombs and glitter, who emerged as the winner and opened the 2023 Tour de France up again. The twin afflictions that had been nagging at Pogačar in advance of his visit to Cautarets – the bothersome 64-second time loss in Laruns and the more serious damage to the aura of invincibility that he used to have – were miraculously healed. There used to be a saying in Béarn patois: “A Cautares, tout que garech.” In Cautarets, we cure everything.

However, you could say of the Tour de France that it is ridden with poetry, but the results sheets are written in prose. The cold hard logic of the 2023 Tour is that after less than a week, it has separated into a very clear hierarchy: Vingegaard and Pogačar, and then, a long way back, the rest. The Dane and the Slovenian finished 2:39 ahead of the next GC riders, but discounting those who’d been in the early break, the next seven riders – erstwhile yellow jersey Jai Hindley, Carlos Rodríguez, Simon Yates, Adam Yates, Romain Bardet, Tom Pidcock and David Gaudu, all finished within 32 seconds of each other (and these riders currently sit third to ninth). Jai Hindley had put himself into a strong and dangerous position with his long escape yesterday, but his efforts caught him up and he looks to have found his level. He might have reflected on Prologue, another poem by Heine, which contains the lines, “Good fortune is a giddy maid / Fickle and restless as a faun / She smoothes your hair; and then the jade / Kisses you quickly, and is gone.” Though Hindley is only 1:34 behind Vingegaard, it looks like the yellow jersey is gone – he was unable to match Vingegaard and Pogačar in the final kilometres of the Tourmalet.

Jumbo-Visma were the dominant team today, even if the main beneficiary was Pogačar. They put Wout van Aert into the big break of 20 riders that went early in the stage and allowed Hindley’s Bora-Hansgrohe team to make the pace to the Col d’Aspin, but then executed a strategy that initially looked curious, and might have set off more speculation about intra-team friction between Vingegaard and Van Aert and their differing priorities. Jumbo started pulling on the front of the peloton, at exactly the same time that Van Aert started pulling on the front of the break. This happened both on the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, calling to mind Heine’s poem The Hostile Brothers, which tells the story of a fight between two knights, brothers, on a mountaintop, which is so bitter it continues into death, as they continue their supernatural struggle for eternity: “Brothers they who thus in fury / Fierce encounter hand to hand / Say, what cause could make a brother / ‘Gainst a brother turn his brand?” The Belgian press had speculated that Vingegaard not having done a turn on the front of the leading group on stage two to Donostia had given Van Aert cause to turn ‘gainst his Danish team-mate. However, the situation evolved when Sepp Kuss again shredded the favourites group on the Tourmalet and put Vingegaard in a position to bridge to Van Aert, with Pogačar in tow, on the Tourmalet’s descent. Jumbo-Visma had judged both efforts perfectly.

The 2023 Tour, then, is perfectly poised. Ironically, Vingegaard was dominant yesterday and didn’t go into the yellow jersey; today he was dropped at Cautarets and took the yellow jersey. He has the strongest team in the Tour at his disposal, but suddenly, he no longer looks like the strongest rider. Pogačar, for perhaps the first time in his career, rode a clever race, sitting on Vingegaard all day and measuring his effort. Last year, he spent the first 10 days of the race constantly attacking and not gaining much time; today he sat back, and gained half a minute on Vingegaard. 

The Romantic movement prioritised individual emotions and relied on harnessing the natural human reactions of awe and existential euphoria when faced with the sublime. Cycling fans might be experiencing similar feelings upon having watched Tadej Pogačar attacking on La Cambasque.

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