Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) on stage 18 of the 2022 Tour de France.

Breaking down the attacks that led to Pogačar’s defeat

One thing's for sure, the reigning Tour de France champion will fight to his last breath.

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Earlier this week, Tadej Pogačar vowed to attack at every possible opportunity.

Almost two and a half minutes down on Jonas Vingegaard – much too big a margin to close in the stage 20 time trial – Pogačar had no choice but to keep trying if he was to claim a third consecutive Tour de France title, even if it was just a few seconds here and there. It would be death by a thousand cuts. But it was never certain who exactly would be the victim.

In the end it was the perpetrator himself.

Having failed to distance the yellow jersey on either of the first two stage in the Pyrenees, it all came down to stage 18 and the Hautacam, the last summit finish and the last mountain of the race.

Pogačar had cashed in his remaining domestiques on a spectacular stage 17, and though he and UAE Team Emirates managed to pull off a kind of psychological warfare on the way to Peyragudes on Wednesday, isolating the yellow jersey, the two-time Tour champ was left weakened on stage 18. After a predictably frantic start, a large breakaway was finally let go and the GC favourites hit the foot of the first-category Col de Spandelles together.

With 44 kilometres left of the stage, the Slovenian’s talent hung over the yellow jersey group like the Sword of Damocles. Mercifully, they only had to wait four kilometres for the first strike to land.

An earlier acceleration that put Jumbo-Visma on notice, but which was just to grab a bidon from team staff…

First attack

About 40 kilometres out, it begins.

Pogačar wound it up to attack from mid-pack about 40 kilometres from the finish and about halfway up the Col de Spandelles. Vingegaard seemed to shrink his surface area to slip into the slight Slovenian’s wake as they left everyone else behind. You can see the resignation in David Gaudu’s (Groupama-FDJ) body language as he watches cycling’s prodigal sons dart up the incline – something once upon a time he might have hoped he’d be.

Attack two

There was little more than a kilometre’s respite before the yellow jersey group grew in number as the slow-and-steadies clawed their way back up to Pogačar and Vingegaard.

Then the second blow landed.

Pogačar tries to catch Vingegaard, ever so slightly boxed in, unawares.

This time, only Vingegaard’s loyal teammate Sepp Kuss could latch back on, for now.

Third time lucky?

Tick, tick…Boom!

With Kuss alongside the yellow jersey and Pogačar against the verge, the white jersey shifted gear and launched, again, taking the inside line. But Vingegaard, a student of the fine art of Pogačar-ness, reacted as if in slow motion.

At this point, surely Pogačar is getting rather miffed about this enigmatic Dane’s doggedness. What is there to do?

Again and again

There was a slight lull in the action as both rivals took a moment to gather themselves/suck in some hydration, which allowed Geraint Thomas to charge onto the wheel and attack. The number of times any other GC rider has attacked the top two could probably be counted on one hand, but the Welshman would soon be overhauled with the next Slovenian attack.

The closest Pogačar came to distancing Vingegaard. NB: Geraint Thomas was just a few metres further up the incline and if the GIF were longer, you’d see the ‘whippersnappers’ fly past their elder, just as they’d picked off breakaway riders throughout the climb.

This time Vingegaard took longer to regain contact, the gap between the two bigger than it had been in several days, but slowly and surely, the yellow jersey’s magnet re-engaged with Pogačar’s rear wheel.

Mountain sprint

In a near-last desperate attempt to drop Vingegaard, Pogačar sprinted full gas over the top of the Cat.1 Col de Spangelles, which topped out just over 33 kilometres from the finish. By now, the yellow jersey was only growing in confidence, in direct opposition to Pogačar’s growing fatigue, and all that was missing as Pogačar crossed the line with his yellow shadow was a dismayed shake of the head.

Outnumbered and outgunned

I won’t go too deep into the melodrama that played out on the descent here; the important detail is that attacking between the inseparable rivals was neutralised and they hit the foot of the hors-category Hautacam with company.

It was the beginning of the end, for Pogačar, for Vingegaard, and for the GC race at the 2022 Tour.

The favourites retrieved the last remaining escapers – Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) – with about six kilometres left of the final climb, and incredibly, Van Aert was able to do one last effort for his teammate, even after being on the attack almost literally from kilometre zero.

Just as it did on stage 11, it was surely dawning on Pogačar that he had fallen into another trap carefully laid by Jumbo-Visma, a team unfazed by the light humiliation they’d suffered on stage 17. Only this time, it was different. While his determination to mark Primož Roglič proved costly on the way to the Col du Granon, Pogačar was at least a partner in his own destruction on Thursday, leading the attacks in a last-ditch attempt to break Vingegaard.

Breaking point.

That Pogačar was the one to break was in the end a small concession to cap off a heroic day of racing all out to defend his title. Yes, his capitulation was a massive victory for Jumbo-Visma. But it came at the end of a race that has seen the two teams batting the tennis ball back and forth, trading both success and misfortune, and writing the pages of a Tour de France that will be remembered perhaps even more fondly than the 2020 fireworks.

We the cycling world have learned more about the 23-year-old in losing than we ever did when he was an unstoppable and prolific winner (which he still is). Mainly that he is indefatigable, determined, and a true sportsman, even in defeat.

The 2023 Tour de France is going to be insane.

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