This is what makes sport so great

Jonas Vingegaard didn’t have to wait for Tadej Pogačar. It's a good thing he did.

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Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) didn’t have to wait. When Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) crashed on the descent off the Col de Spandelles on stage 18 of the Tour, the Dane could have pushed on. There would have been no shame in that.

Bike races are contested downhill as well as up. Pogačar made a mistake in taking the wrong line around that left-hander; a mistake that Vingegaard was not obliged to fix. Sport is about doing everything within your power (and within the rules) to win.

All fair arguments. But there’s more to sport than ruthless competition between bitter rivals. I love seeing the world’s best athletes duke it out, but I also love the moments of humanity that shine through in spite of how ferocious the contest is. 

The fierce competitors giving their all to beat each other before chatting amiably when the battle is over (see video below). The athlete that stays with an injured rival because, even though they’re on a different team, they’re also another human in need. The team that provides a guard of honour for a rival athlete at the end of their illustrious career.

Sportsmanship.

But context is important. An elite sporting contest where rivals are more interested in being mates than beating each other would be far from an engaging spectacle. We want to see people giving it their all to win. It’s that intensity of competition that makes those moments of sportsmanship stand out.

The battle between Pogačar and Vingegaard at this Tour has been an almighty slugfest. Pogačar, the unbackable pre-race favourite, attacking Vingegaard over and over and over again, desperate to find a crack in his rival’s armour; desperate to take back the yellow jersey so many expected him to win for a third time. 

It’s the most aggressive GC battle we’ve seen at the Tour in years and a thrilling spectacle because of it. Moments of mutual respect in and around that contest only heighten the spectacle. 

But let’s not be naive: Vingegaard’s decision to wait wasn’t entirely motivated by respect for Pogačar. There was arguably little to gain by pushing on. He said as much himself afterwards: “I don’t think I needed to attack,” he said. “I think it was better for me to hold a steady pace.”

Pushing on would have left Vingegaard on his own for the rest of the descent and on the short valley road that followed. Yes, he had Wout van Aert up the road who could have waited. But sitting up instead (and Pogačar and Vingegaard taking it easy the rest of the way down) meant both Sep Kuss and Tiesj Benoot were able to catch back on from behind, giving Vingegaard a greater numerical advantage than pushing on. Waiting made more sense tactically.

And ultimately, waiting for Pogačar didn’t cost Vingegaard anything. In fact it was all upside.

He went on to ride away from Pogačar on Hautacam to take the stage win and extend his overall lead. He couldn’t have known it would go that way in the moment Pogačar crashed, but I’d like to think that when Pogačar was picking himself up off the gravel, Vingegaard thought to himself “I want to win this with my legs, not because Pogačar has crashed”. 

Not only is Vingegaard going to win the Tour, he’s going to do it as a most likeable champion who’s shown the utmost respect to his closest rival. That the sort of positive PR that other Tour winners in the past decade would have killed for. It’s certainly given the producers of the Netflix documentary plenty of compelling human drama to work with.

I can understand the argument that Vingegaard should have carried on. He would have been well within his rights to do so. But I’m glad he didn’t.

I’ll remember the 2022 Tour de France for the intense, weeks-long battle between two closely matched rivals. But I’ll also remember it for the respect and sportsmanship the two have shown each other throughout.

The shared smiles after a failed attack. The handshake at the end of another hard-fought stage. The hug in the post-race warm-down area with words of appreciation for one another. The ‘thank-you’ handshake when one waited for the other to pick himself off the ground.

Sportsmanship within a ferocious battle. This is what sport’s all about.

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