Tour de France stage 18 debrief: Alone at last

Jonas Vingegaard confirmed that he is the strongest rider in the Tour in winning at Hautacam

Hautacam, which has been the site of much dissembling in cycling over the years, from Bjarne Riis’s victory in 1996 through Lance Armstrong’s attack there in 2000 to Joan José Cobo winning in 2008 and much in between, finally revealed the truth about the 2022 Tour de France.

For a week since L’Alpe d’Huez there has appeared to be parity between race leader Jonas Vingegaard and defending champion Tadej Pogačar. The two riders have been inseparable, despite the Slovenian’s constant goading attacks.

However, on Hautacam Vingegaard was consecrated as the strongest rider in the race and the likely winner in Paris, as he finally got rid of his turbulent challenger in the final few kilometres. He won alone, 1:04 clear of Pogačar and 2:10 ahead of the extraordinary Wout van Aert, his Jumbo-Visma teammate. Pogačar has cornered the market in quantity of attacks in this Tour de France; Vingegaard has focused on quality.

The Tour de France has followed a very consistent pattern in the modern era, with a couple of exceptions. Generally the strongest rider has revealed themselves early. In other words, we’ve known who’s going to win fairly early on. Though the riders themselves will say it’s not certain until the finish line has been crossed on the Champs-Élysées, this is true of Bradley Wiggins in 2012, Chris Froome in 2013, Vincenzo Nibali in 2014, Froome again in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Geraint Thomas in 2018 and Pogačar in 2021. (In 2019, there was genuine unpredictability deep into the final mountain stages; in 2020 Primož Roglič looked the likely winner until Pogačar ambushed him in the Planche des Belles Filles time trial at the death of the race.)

(Image by ASO/Pauline Ballet)

Now that the mountains are over, we can confidently say that Jonas Vingegaard has followed this pattern in 2022. Pogačar has been a constant thorn in his side, and though the 2:22 gap which held between them for most of the race after the Col du Granon was fairly sizeable, race followers have seen Pogačar do enough outlandish things that he couldn’t be written off. Even going into the Hautacam stage, race followers wondered if, inspired by the stage start in the Catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes, he would go for one last Hail Mary attack.

However, there are few proven miracles in cycling. For several days now, Vingegaard, Pogačar and Thomas have looked like the three strongest riders in the race, in that order, and any hopes Pogačar and Thomas might have had about trying to make the race more tactical were dashed by the strength of Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma squad. Sepp Kuss was with Vingegaard deep into the final climb; immediately Van Aert was able to take over the pacemaking, and the Belgian time triallist-sprinter-puncheur-climber was riding so strongly he initially dropped Pogačar.

For the last two years, Pogačar has been laying waste to previous assumptions about how races can be won. Though he’s won in a variety of different ways, if there was one signature method, it would be the long-range attack. It’s how he confirmed his Tour win last year, dropping everybody on the Col de Romme, 40km from the finish in Le Grand-Bornand on stage eight. He won a memorable stage at the 2019 Vuelta in this fashion; the same with Tirreno-Adriatico in 2021. It’s how he won Strade Bianche in 2022. It’s been a successful method, but now everybody is at it and it seems to have neutralised him. In the crucial stage of this Tour de France, stage 11 to the Col du Granon, Jumbo-Visma broke the race apart on the Col du Galibier, 60km from the finish, isolated Pogačar and duped him into attacking, when defence, for once, would have been more appropriate.

In both the Peyragudes and Hautacam stages, the favourites were already more or less alone on the penultimate climbs - the Val Louron-Azet before Peyragudes and the Col de Spandelles before Hautacam - many kilometres before the finish. Pogačar is no longer the only rider going for long-range attacks - they are all at it, and it’s taken one of his primary weapons away.

(Image by ASO/Pauline Ballet)

Pogačar has also intimidated and cowed rivals with his aggression. He’s never been afraid to attack, and he seems to viscerally enjoy it. However, the attacks through the 2022 Tour de France have not worked. He attacked over the cobbles and won stages six and seven. He sprinted for the line in the middle mountain stages into the Alps for no apparent benefit. And once he had had his off-day at the Col du Granon he attacked the very next day at L’Alpe d’Huez. Then again on several occasions through the Massif Central and Pyrenees; six times alone on the Spandelles.

Pogačar’s coach Iñigo San Millan has said that the Slovenian has superior recovery, and his level tails off less in a Grand Tour than many other riders. So perhaps the idea behind the constant goading and prodding of Vingegaard was designed to wear down the Dane and provoke a capitulation like his own on the Granon. However, in retrospect it’s safe to say that the attacks were ineffectual. 

There’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe.” Pogačar spent the full four hours trying to chop and chop at Vingegaard’s lead, but it turned out that the axe was blunt.

Cover image by Getty Images