I Can’t Believe How Good This Tour de France Is
For the record I'm a huge Tadej fan!
I Can’t Believe How Good This Tour de France Is
Respectful rivals Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard trade spectacular attacks into the race’s final days
Jonas Vingegaard, holds a 10-second lead over Tadej Pogacar heading into the final six stages of the Tour de France. MARTIN DIVISEK/ZUMA PRESS
By Jason Gay, WSJ
Updated July 17, 2023 7:05 am ET
Yes, your bike dork sports columnist is currently meandering through the Alps, but I’ll avoid making a shaky proclamation about whether or not this Tour de France is an all-time Tour de France.
This cuckoo race is 110 editions old, with incomparable eras, scandals and levels of crazy. Cyclists used to smoke cigarettes, take strychnine and cocaine, raid bistros for food and fix their own tires. Not long ago, a rider ran up a mountain without his broken bike.
I’ll say this: It’s one of the most exciting Tours I’ve seen. If you’re not watching, you’ve got to check it out.
We’re into week three, just six stages left before Sunday’s finale in Paris, I’m riding in a rented Citroën with the Journal’s Joshua Robinson, and neither one of us has a clue who is going to take the winner’s yellow jersey.
Actually, check that: We are very confident the Tour will be taken by one of two riders—the defending champion, Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark, or the 2020 and 2021 winner, Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia—but we have no idea which one. Like zero. Could be Jonas. Could be Tadej. It’s that close. They feel that evenly matched.
This is rare. Stage races like the Tour—where the “general classification winner” is the cyclist with the shortest accumulated time—tend to be careful affairs in which contenders take few chances until late. It’s exceptional to get a phone booth knife fight that goes back and forth for the whole race, which is why you run into old-timers on steel Pinarellos who want to talk to you about Greg LeMond squeaking past Laurent Fignon by eight seconds in 1989.
At the moment, after 62½ hours of racing, Vingegaard leads Pogacar by 10 seconds. That’s a sliver. His margin could have disappeared Sunday, when Vingegaard and Pogacar attacked each other on Mont Blanc. It could have disappeared Saturday, when they attacked each other on the Col de Joux Plane, and a Pogacar offensive was foiled by a slowing official motorcycle on the course—a maddening bungle of bike on bike crime.
Two skinny rivals keep trading blows, holding zero back, putting on a charismatic show. Not long ago, cycling was in a boring place, hung over from the Armstrong years and dominated by dull superteams stuck to cautious strategies. That’s not happening here. I’d compare the Tadej-Jonas duel to a classic haymaker prize fight, like Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns—even if Pogacar and Vingegaard are built like a pair of coffee stirrers.
The race could change again on Tuesday in what’s become a critical individual time trial, a sleepy if eccentric exercise in which cyclists pull on aerodynamic skinsuits, don helmets which look like salad bowls sold at the MoMA store, and ride against the clock.
Pogacar is superb against the clock, famously winning his first Tour in a late time trial. Vingegaard is elite, too. Decisive seconds are there for the taking, and I can’t wait to see who gets them.
That shows you what a bizarre Tour this is. I’m excited to watch an individual time trial. It’s like being excited to watch someone sit in the dark and eat a sleeve of graham crackers.
All credit goes to Pogacar and Vingegaard, friends and champions both. It’s a respectful rivalry marked by moments of grace—like in 2022, when the pair called a truce during a sketchy mountain descent, shook hands, and safely rode together.
Jonas Vingegaard, left, and Tadej Pogacar putting on a charismatic show. PHOTO: MARTIN DIVISEK/ZUMA PRESS
Pogacar, 24, is the lighthearted contender, a Slovenian superstar who smiles at finishes and makes corny jokes on social media. Vingegaard, a former fishmonger from Denmark, is the steely 26-year-old champ, clearly weighted by the leader’s yellow jersey, but refusing to surrender.
We should also talk about Vingegaard’s and Pogacar’s teammates, who are essential players in this drama. Cycling teammates help set pace, ferry water and food, and protect leaders from the wind, saving them energy for a late kick.
Vingegaard has two “super domestiques” on Jumbo—the Belgian powerhouse Wout van Aert, and a 28-year-old mountain goat from Durango, Colo., Sepp Kuss. Kuss has been brilliant all Tour, and may be the third-most important rider in the race, critical to helping Vingegaard’s chances in the climbing stages.
Pogacar, meanwhile, has been energized by UAE’s addition of Adam Yates, an experienced climber who has stayed by his side through the Alps and has a chance at finishing third in the overall standings. Last year, Covid demolished the UAE roster, leaving Pogacar isolated in the Jumbo mob. This year, the team battle is joined.
The fantasy, of course, is that Pogacar and Vingegaard take the suspense into next weekend, finishing Saturday’s mountain stage locked in a tie and—this would make cycling fans go completely bonkers—settling the yellow jersey on the cobbles of Paris. Tour tradition holds that the Sunday finale is a ceremonial parade, with no attacks on the yellow jersey leader—it’s one reason the LeMond-Fignon duel, which finished with a time trial into Paris, is so beloved, as LeMond seized control on the last day.
Could Tadej and Jonas carry this all the way until the final right hand turn off the Place de la Concorde onto the Champs-Élysées?
Je ne sais pas!
Purists will scoff that a Paris yellow jersey finale is impossible, a violation of protocol, but a bike dork can dream. There’s a week left in France and it’s already a fantasy Tour. It just needs a winner.