Reasons to be cheerful: Why the yellow jersey is still up for grabs
Fear not, the Tour isn’t over yet.
Fear not, the Tour isn’t over yet.
After two stage wins in a row and a third-place on stage eight, Tadej Pogačar has extended his overall advantage to 39 seconds in the battle for yellow. After an impressive opening week and dominating the past few days, it may seem like the race is already over. But before clicking that back button or switching off the TV for the rest of July, there is still some reasons to be optimistic for an exciting race ahead.
Pogacar’s stage 7 win was his second in a row following his win atop the punchy finish to stage 6 with a narrow victory atop a ~10km mountain. On paper, a stage win in the yellow jersey on the first summit finish of the race screams all sorts of dominance and suggests we could be in for a one-horse race over the next 13 stages. However, working backwards from the finish line, the first reason to be cheerful is the manner of Pog’s win.
While still first across the line, Pogačar lacked the unmatchable brilliance of stage 6 and previous vintage Tadej performances. It was Jonas Vingegaard who made what looked like the decisive move for stage victory before Pogačar somehow managed to muster the wattage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This was a winner refusing to accept defeat rather than a dominant Pogačar as the defending champion undoubtedly had to dig deep for this win.
Digging deep for a Tour de France stage win is how it should be, but Pogačar has a habit of making these things look easy. Vingegaard may have been beaten on the day, but he certainly looks like a match for Pogačar on these longer climbs.
Delving deeper, UAE’s decision to control stage 7 to the Super Planche suggests the team wanted to set up Pogačar to put significant time into his rivals. While the team did bring the race back together for a GC favourites stage battle, neither his teammates nor Pogačar could deliver a decisive blow.
On a climb where the Team Sky of old whittled the peloton down to just three riders, there was still a considerable group left at the front when Rafal Majka swung off. Interestingly for the remainder of the race, it seems there is a considerable group of riders capable of living with, and hopefully attacking off, UAE’s pace on the climbs.
Team UAE set about controlling the breakaway early on in stage 7, on a day when the breakaway might have fancied its chances. While the team has significantly strengthened its roster over the winter, question marks remain over their ability to control the Tour de France for two weeks or more.
While the team passed the first test, the real questions revolve around how they cope with multiple back-to-back days on the front later in the race.
Adding to those uncertainties was the news Team UAE has lost Vegard Stake Laengenhas from the race following a COVID positive. Although not the highest-profile rider on the squad, the loss of Stake Laengen, coupled with Marc Hirschi and Mikkel Bjerg’s sub-par form, makes the task of controlling the race all the more difficult for Team UAE Emirates.
Should Pogačar’s team succumb to the pressure of controlling, there are plenty of potential beneficiaries waiting in the wings to make this race interesting. Jumbo-Visma has two pre-race favourites in the shape of Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič. At least in terms of chasing the stage win, Vingegaard had Pogačar on the ropes on stage 7 and Roglič was best of the rest at the top of the Super Planche, despite presumably carrying some side effects of a dislocated shoulder on stage 5.
Perhaps the biggest Jumbo-Visma-clad reason to be cheerful comes in the shape of Wout van Aert. With both Roglič and Vingegaard behind Pogačar on GC and seemingly unable to definitively drop him, Jumbo-Visma will need to go on the offensive with more daring tactics. Both riders have finished second at Le Tour and will hopefully go all in to chase the top step of the podium.
Wout van Aert could be all the difference in making aggressive tactics work. The sooner Wout can effectively wrap up the green jersey and turn his attention to early breaks in the mountains, the sooner we could see Roglič attempt to undo his stage five deficit.
If Jumbo-Visma has options with two GC riders and a Wout van beast, Ineos arguably have even greater options with the GC trident of Thomas, Yates and Martinez, backed up by Pidcock still at 1-35 on GC and grande-wattage Ganna.
Furthermore, we have yet to see the Ineos train on this Tour and its absence so far could indicate a change in strategy. With expert tactician Steve Cummings now in the director’s seat at Ineos, hopes are high we could see Ineos chuck a hefty dose of chaos into the second half of this Tour.
For all the strength in depth at both Jumbo and Ineos, unless Pogačar cracks entirely, neither team has a definitive Pogačar beater. Vingegaard is the closest thing to a Pogačar beater, and strangely that could prove his downfall. At some point, Ineos and Jumbo will have to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of victory by strategy.
The closer in both time and performance a rider is to Pogačar, the harder it is for that rider to break clear and the less likely that rider is to risk it all. Vingegaard could find himself stuck in Pogačar’s wheel, hoping for a Tadej-crack or secretly hoping to counter unsuccessful attacks from his teammates.
Watch for Yates, Martinez and Roglič to kick off the make-or-break aggression in the latter half of next week. With Thomas and Vingegaard keeping their powder dry for a silver bullet move later in the race.
The latter half of this Tour provides plenty of opportunities for a GC ambush. Stage 16, with a lumpy start and two first-category, climbs later in the stage before a downhill finish, could provide the perfect ambush territory.
Stage 17 to Peyragudes provides another opportunity with three first-category chaos sprinklers and a cat 2 in the final 70km. If Jumbo and Ineos want to isolate Pogačar, these are the roads to do it and once isolated, Pogačar cannot (we hope) follow every attack. At some point, the two-time Tour champion will have to decide between risking a total blow-up following yet another attack and risking counterattacks later in the stage should he have to set the pace all the way to the finish.