'The podium could have been decided today' – The Tour de France's befuddling GC stalemate

The favourites to win the yellow jersey would not work cohesively together on stage nine’s gravel roads and the tension in the peloton was clear

There was a moment when all three of them were away together. The trio of favourites to win this year’s Tour de France had broken away from the peloton on the gravel roads around Troyes, and it looked like the podium for this year’s race could be decided on the final stage before the first rest day. Then, the next moment came, and they looked at each other. Remco Evenepoel shook his head, and the yellow jersey of Tadej Pogačar began to freewheel. Jonas Vingegaard sat firmly and stubbornly behind. He would not come to take his turn, and the momentum was gone. There would be no more time gaps on the general classification after stage nine of the Tour de France. The fire had been put out.

The actions of the general classification riders, especially Vingegaard, who was the rider who originally refused to pull through in the breakaway group, raised questions. Right in front of the Danish rider was a chance to cement his position in the fight for the podium, yet he did not want to take it. 

“I think Tadej and I were not happy with [Vingegaard not working] because the podium for the Tour could have been decided today already. We have to accept race tactics and race situations, but sometimes you also need the balls to race, and Jonas didn’t have them today,” Remco Evenepoel of Soudal–Quick-Step commented bluntly after the stage.

“But no problem, the race is still long, and I understand the reasons why he didn’t pull and race. Tadej and I both like to attack pretty far away from the finish, so we wanted to continue. Jonas is sometimes a bit more defensive, but we have to accept it, and he will have all the good reasons to race like this.”

Pogačar agreed with Evenepoel’s view of the race situation, too: “Today me and Jonas could have raced away from the other GC guys, or when it was me, Remco and Jonas, we could have secured the podium places. I don’t know, it’s just the way I see it, but everyone has their own race, and I can’t say anything against that. It’s just the way it is,” the Slovenian rider stated after the stage.

Visma-Lease a Bike’s own decisions for not working with their rivals might not make for the best spectacle when it comes to making an entertaining bike race, but the team’s reasoning is valid. Vingegaard was on a bike he borrowed from his teammate, Jan Tratnik, for almost 100 kilometres of today’s stage, which understandably had an impact on his confidence in his ability to follow attacks if he was isolated. He was also on terrain that doesn’t favour his strengths, so having teammates around him as a failsafe if things began to go wrong was a priority for the Danish rider.

“Tadej was the strongest today on the gravel sectors. It favours him more than it does me, especially when it’s more loose gravel. It is not really favourable to a guy with my weight,” Vingegaard told the media a few minutes after crossing the finish line in Troyes.

“When he got a small gap on me, it was the worst sector when it was so loose I was just sliding around, and it was really hard for me to control the gap. He was riding so fast that, at that point, we didn’t really think about it. In all situations, we thought it was better for us to have more teammates in case something happened. In one way, it would be better to ride as Primoz and Remco were not there, but our goal was to not lose any time, so it was better to wait in that case.”

And so it was. They waited on the gravel, which means Pogačar still leads the Tour de France with a margin of 33 seconds to Evenepoel and 1:15 to Vingegaard. Despite all the expectations, stage nine didn’t change any of that, but it did still serve a purpose. It exposed the tactics and mindsets of the three key contenders for the yellow jersey this year: Vingegaard is playing the long game, waiting for the roads to kick up and for his climbing prowess to come into its own. Pogačar and Evenepoel are more willing to attack, but they will not drag the Visma-Lease a Bike rider to the finish if he refuses to share the workload.

Unlike at the Giro d’Italia a few weeks ago, Pogačar could not just ride away from his rivals with a punchy attack today, and that’s a good sign for the racing to come. There are three bike riders taking part in a game of chess on wheels, and they have many more moves before it is decided who will play checkmate at the finish in Nice.

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