Now what? Tadej Pogačar threw all he had left at Jonas Vingaard on Stage 17 of the Tour de France, the second of the race in the Pyrenees, but four bonus seconds was a measly return for his efforts and those of his exhausted team on the road to Peyragudes.
Granted, Pogačar edged out Vingaard at the top to claim his third stage win of his Tour, but even as he celebrated crossing the line with his usual vigor, it was hard to shake off the feeling that it amounted to a consolation prize. His path to a third consecutive overall victory remains as daunting now as it was before the start of the day. He remains second in the general classification, 2h18 behind Vingegaard.
“Tomorrow is a more difficult day, and we can try again tomorrow,” Pogačar insisted after the podium ceremony, but he knows he has almost exhausted his stock of tomorrows on this Tour. Thursday’s passage through the Col d’Aubisque, the Col de Spandelles and Hautacam represents his last chance to bend this race to his will.
Pogačar will take comfort in the fact that, for the first time in this race, his UAE Team Emirates team was stronger than Vingaard’s Jumbo-Visma cohort, and one day it was down to just four riders. After an ill Marc Soler finished outside the time limit on Tuesday, an injured Rafal Majka retired before the start.
In their absence, a most surprising Mikkel Bjerg and a most resolute Brandon McNulty stepped up to the plate, shredding the group of yellow jerseys on the penultimate ascent of the Col de Val Louron-Azet and leaving Vingegaard without teammates with nearly 25 km to go. .
Pogačar’s primary problem on this Tour, however, remains unsolvable. Vingeard parked in the Slovenian’s wheel once the UAE Team Emirates team began their forcing, and he was still there when McNulty’s inexorable tempo burned everyone. McNulty led Pogačar and Vingaard to the top of Val Louron-Azet and on to Peyragudes before the race’s two best riders sprinted for the stage win.
“I think the fact today is that the mood is better, even though we are down to four,” Pogačar said. “I think it’s changed the dynamic now. We’re really optimistic and motivated for tomorrow’s stage. Brandon and Mikkel were really good. We can try really hard and try to make time. Today we saw that we were stronger.”
In his television interviews behind the podium and again in the brief stage winners’ conference for the written press, Pogačar repeatedly returned to two themes, namely the strength of his team and his confidence ahead of the third and more demanding part of the triptych of the Pyrenean stages on Thursday. .
“It was not just Brandon, but also Mikkel and Hirschi. Mikkel rode like a climber today. He set such a good pace on the climbs, it was amazing,” Pogačar said. “I felt so good at this pace, I felt confident and I know he felt confident too. Brandon did an amazing job, he was so good today.
“We had so much bad luck the last few days, there was always something wrong. I think if everything had been normal, we would have been the strongest team every day, but these things happen in cycling. Tomorrow we will give that’s all.”
But while Bjerg and McNulty outdid themselves on Wednesday, Pogačar was again unable to place Vingaard in any real distress. Before the final sprint, Pogačar’s only acceleration came in the last meters of the Hourquette d’Anzican. It was unclear whether Pogačar was chasing the King of the Mountains’ points or trying to make Vingegaard nervous ahead of the downhill, but it suggested a lack of confidence in his own ability to drop the yellow jersey on the final climb.
So it turned out. Vingeard was as relentless here as he had been in Alpe d’Huez, Mende and Mur de Péguère. Even without Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert by his side on the last two climbs, Vingegaard never appeared distressed.
“Vingegaard is strong. We knew that. It’s not news,” said UAE Team Emirates manager Mauro Gianetti, who knows Thursday’s Hautacam final better than anyone, given his team’s notorious display. Saunier Duval on the climb in 2008 shortly before they started the race. due to Riccardo Riccò’s positive test for EPO.
“You have to be realistic, and it’s a big gap,” Gianetti said of Pogačar’s deficit. “But on the circuit, you have to keep believing in it until the end. It will take a lot of courage and a lot of things.”
Pogačar, for his part, sought to strike a note of optimism about his prospects. “I think he plays to be really strong and not to crack,” he said. “But I think today if I had Rafal Majka, Marc Soler and George Bennett, plus Brandon and Mikkel, maybe we could have had a tougher race and we could have cracked Jonas, but tomorrow is another day to try.”
In truth, Pogačar knows that assumptions about his exhausted squad are moot. The second half of this race was a direct competition between the two strongest men in the race, and Pogačar has yet to drop Vingegaard. It is as simple and as complicated as that. “We will try tomorrow, because the harder the race, the better,” Pogačar said. “We will see tomorrow if he has any weaknesses.”
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