Well, well, well, we really do have a bike race.
24 hours on from despondency and deflation that the 2023 Tour de France was going to be a procession for Jonas Vingegaard, the race has had a 180 degree change. Tadej Pogačar has bounced back and he is most certainly in the fight for the maillot jaune.
For the second day in the Pyrenees produced yet more drama, yet more suspense, yet more intrigue, and yet more thrilling bike racing. This time it was Vingegaard, not Pogačar, who was dropped, the Slovenian winning the stage and putting 28 seconds into the Dane on the finish in Cauterets, clawing back almost half of the time he shipped a day earlier.
Whereas he looked laboured, tired and vulnerable on stage five, a day on he looked composed, comfortable and better prepared. Above all, he looked and acted like Tadej Pogačar. Perhaps the fifth stage was just a blip and not, as feared, a reflection of his condition. Maybe, in fact, he’s going to get better as the race progresses. He certainly subscribes to that view. “I think the shape is coming along everyday,” he told the press afterwards, his wide smile and cheeky grin back. “We must not give up, and we will ride like this to the end. It’s going to be a big fight.”
At the day’s start in Tarbes, Dan Martin, a former teammate of the Slovenian, informed Rouleur that Pogačar had told him the previous night that he was confident he would be at his best shape in the final week. Former Tour winner Andy Schleck predicted Pogačar’s comeback, stating that his stage five performance was more representative of the fact that he hadn’t raced a mountain stage since Paris-Nice, in comparison to Vingegaard who competed at the Critérium du Dauphiné a month ago. The message cutting through was that it was not necessary to worry that stage five was just the start of a hiding.
“Today Jumbo didn’t miss the plan, but they tried and they didn’t succeed,” Pogačar assessed. “It feels good. It feels amazing.” This was his 10th win in the Tour at the age of just 24 and as he sat under the darkening Pyrenean sky, he had rediscovered his chirpiness. “I was joking before that I’m coming for you, Mark Cavendish,” he laughed. “That’s a bit cocky to say, but I’m really happy to have just one stage win.”
So where does that leave the race? It’s remarkable that so much has happened in just six stages. Kudos has to go to the Tour’s race designers for such a brave and bold course that has created outstanding racing so early on.
Despite the disappointment of losing time during the sixth stage, it is Vingegaard who now leads the race, he taking yellow off Jai Hindley who couldn’t remain at the top of the GC for more than a day, but only sits 1-34 off Vingegaard; Pogačar is just 25 seconds off the Jumbo-Visma man.
The next mountain stage comes on Sunday, finishing atop the mythical Puy de Dôme. There was trepidation after the finish into Laruns that Vingegaard might have the race sewn up after the battle up the volcano, but those fears have now been nulified. Among many things, Pogačar’s comeback was a reminder, especially to this author, that Grand Tour racing has many twists and turns, and the final nail is only hammered in once the peloton crosses the finish line for the 21st time.
Some believe that Pogačar will supersede Eddy Merckx as the greatest cyclist of all time. Time will tell, as it always does, and debate will rage fiercely. But what can’t be argued is that the Pogačar-Vingegaard rivalry is one of the most closely-fought, tantalisingly poised and exciting duels in the sport’s history. And it only began two years ago.
The Tour de France is alive, its kicking, its screaming and it’s an almighty treat for every single one of us.