The day Pogačar shifted to stage hunting

This isn't a confident Pogačar, but it is a determined one.

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Two thirds of the way through Wednesday’s Pyrenean stage to Peyragudes, the call was made inside the UAE team car: go for the stage win. Jonas Vingegaard, attached like a limpet, would allow no alternative.  

Win Pogačar did. He threw his hands wide and put on a smile, concealing for just a moment the massive effort required to simply put his wheel ahead of Vingegaard’s, let alone draw out any space between the two of them. As the two rolled to a stop they collapsed over their handlebars, heaving in the high mountain air. They were at their limits, and their limits are almost exactly the same.

“Pre-stage, we wanted to try on the penultimate climb,” said UAE sports director Adrej Hauptman after the stage. “Tadej tried near the top but Jonas responded, and we decided we just go and maybe try on the last climb. But when we saw that Jonas was OK, we just focused on victory.” 

Pogačar’s body language changed when that call was made. He sat content on Brandon McNulty’s wheel, at a pace high enough to drop everyone except Vingegaard, and hit out only in sight of the finish gantry.

These were not the attacks of a confident Pogačar, but they were the attacks of a determined one. The moves were slipped into the final moments of the penultimate climb, again on the steep ramp before the finish. A confident Pogačar goes early, often, and when he does, none follow. A confident Pogačar does not throw his hands up for a third stage win with only a four bonus seconds when he needs more than two minutes. But a determined Pogačar, one intent on putting on a show even if he can’t pull on yellow, rides exactly as he did Wednesday.

One more hard stage remains and this Tour feels Vingegaard’s to lose; Pogačar rode today like he’s not sure he can do anything about that. The decision to switch from a focus on the yellow jersey to a focus on stage wins is proof enough.

“[Vingegaard’s] plan is to be really strong and not to crack, but I think that if today I had Rafał Majka with me, or [Marc] Soler or George Bennett with Brandon [McNulty], Mikkel [Bjerg] and everyone, then we could have made a harder race and maybe already cracked Jonas,” Pogačar said. 

“Tomorrow is another day to try, and we will try because the harder the race gets the better it is,” he added. “We will see tomorrow if he has any weaknesses.”

It doesn’t look like Vingegaard has any weaknesses. He was calm and collected throughout the day, despite early isolation at the hands of a crash- and COVID 19-ravaged UAE, which rode out of its skin. There is belief in Pogačar’s team or they wouldn’t ride like they did.

Mikel Bjerg was exceptional. “He put in a hell of a shift for the rider he is, it was cracking me, actually, that he was hurting me so much on a climb,” Geraint Thomas said after the stage. Bjerg was followed by Brandon McNulty, who dropped every GC contender bar his own team leader and the yellow jersey. “Fair play to both of them, whatever they had for breakfast, they were going,” Thomas said.

It is not for lack of will, then. UAE rode as well as it could today, but in Vingegaard, the defending Tour de France champion has simply found an adversary at his level.

Too strong? It sounds somewhat defeatist, but bike racing isn’t a video game. Pogačar knows what he can do, what his team can do, and what he can’t and they can’t. He’s always been that type of rider, more calculated than most give him credit for.

When a stage win becomes the goal, and not the yellow jersey, is it defeatist, realist, or merely an acknowledgement that Thursday’s stage to Hautacam is the last, best chance? 

We’ll find out tomorrow. 

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