Now what? Tadej Pogačar threw everything he had left at Jonas Vingegaard on stage 17 of the Tour de France, the race’s second in the Pyrenees, but four bonus seconds was a scant return for him and his depleted team’s efforts on the road to Peyragudes.
True, Pogačar outsprinted Vingegaard at the summit to claim his third stage win of his Tour, but even though he celebrated with his usual vigor on crossing the line, it was hard to shake off the feeling that this amounted to a consolation prize. His path to a third successive overall victory remains as forbidding now as it did before the day began. He remains second overall, 2:18 behind Vingegaard.
“Tomorrow is a harder day, and we can try again tomorrow,” Pogačar insisted after the podium ceremony, but he knows he has almost exhausted his supply of tomorrows on this Tour. Thursday’s haul over the Col d’Aubisque, Col de Spandelles and Hautacam represents his last chance to bend this race to his will.
Pogačar will draw solace from the fact that, for the first time in this race, his UAE Team Emirates squad was stronger than Vingegaard’s Jumbo-Visma cohort, and on a day when they were reduced to just four riders. After an ill Marc Soler finished outside the time limit on Tuesday, an injured Rafal Majka withdrew before the start.
In their absence, a most surprising Mikkel Bjerg and a most resolute Brandon McNulty stepped up to the mark, shredding the yellow jersey group on the penultimate ascent of the Col de Val Louron-Azet and leaving Vingegaard bereft of teammates with almost 25km still to race .
Pogačar’s overarching problem at this Tour remains intractable, however. Vingegaard parked himself on the Slovenian’s wheel once UAE Team Emirates started their forcing, and he was still there when McNulty’s inexorable tempo had burned off everybody else. McNulty led Pogačar and Vingegaard over the top of Val Louron-Azet and all the way up to Peyragudes before the best two riders in the race sprinted for the stage victory.
“I think the fact today is that the mood is higher, even though we are down to four guys,” Pogačar said. “I think that’s changed the dynamic now. We are really optimistic and motivated for tomorrow’s stage. Brandon and Mikkel were really good. We can try really hard and try to take the time back. Today we saw we were stronger.”
In his televised interviews behind the podium and again in the brief stage winner’s conference for the written press, Pogačar repeatedly returned to two themes, namely the strength of his team and his confidence ahead of Thursday’s third and most demanding installment of the triptych of Pyrenean stages .
“It wasn’t only Brandon, but also Mikkel and Hirschi. Mikkel rode like a climber today. He set such a good pace on the climbs, it was unbelievable,” Pogačar said. “I felt so good with that pace, I felt confident, and I know that he felt confident too. Brandon did an amazing job, he was so good today.
“We’ve had so much bad luck in the last days, there was always something wrong. I think if everything had been normal, we would have been the strongest team every day, but these things happen in cycling. Tomorrow, we will give everything.”
But while Bjerg and McNulty surpassed themselves on Wednesday, Pogačar was again unable to place Vingegaard in any real distress. Before the final sprint, Pogačar’s lone acceleration came in the final meters of the Hourquette d’Anzican. It was hard to say if Pogačar was chasing king of the mountains points or trying to make Vingegaard jittery before the descent, but it suggested a dearth of confidence in his own ability to drop the yellow jersey on the final climb.
So it proved. Vingegaard was as implacable here as he had been on Alpe d’Huez, at Mende and on the Mur de Péguère. Even without Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert by his side on the final two climbs, Vingegaard never appeared in distress.
“Vingegaard is strong. We knew that. It’s not news,” said UAE Team Emirates manager Mauro Gianetti, who knows Thursday’s finale at Hautacam better than most, given his Saunier Duval team’s notorious display on the climb in 2008 shortly before they left the race due to Riccardo Riccò’s positive test for EPO.
“You have to be realistic, and it’s an important gap,” Gianetti said of Pogačar’s deficit. “But at the Tour, you have to keep believing until the end. We’ll need a lot of courage and a lot of things.”
Pogačar, for his part, looked to strike an optimistic note about his prospects. “I think he is playing to be really strong and not to crack,” he said. “But I think today, if I had Rafal Majka, Marc Soler and George Bennett, as well as Brandon and Mikkel, we could maybe have made a harder race and we could have cracked Jonas, but tomorrow is another day to try.”
In truth, Pogačar knows the hypotheticals about his depleted team are moot. The second half of this race has been a straight contest between the two strongest men in the race, and Pogačar still has to drop Vingegaard. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. “We will try tomorrow, because the harder the race is, the better it is,” Pogačar said. “We will see tomorrow if he has any weaknesses.”