Time to pick five highlights from the season, typically great sporting moments and revisit the moment and review with the benefit of time and hindsight. Presented in no particular order, first is Stage 11 of the Tour de France, the day the race was turned upside down.
This stage was enjoyable on the day but let’s go to the start of the season first because Tadej Pogačar was ruling the roost. The ease of his triumph in the 2021 Tour de France, and his decision to return, was the cornerstone around which many rivals rode. Jumbo-Visma weren’t deterred they literally doubled down, picking Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard for July. Pogačar won the UAE Tour, a vital target for his team’s sponsors who can’t afford to be upstaged in their home race.
He then won Strade Bianche with a long range raid that might not be a sporting highlight of the year because he took the suspense out of the race but it was dominant. Days later he won Tirreno-Adriatico again and was a contender for Milan-Sanremo and when he had a go in the cobbled classics he came close to winning the Tour of Flanders on his debut. After a rest, a runaway win in the Tour of Slovenia suggested everything was on track for the Tour de France.
Before the start in Copenhagen one question was whether the strongest rider or the strongest team would win the race? UAE Emirates were not the strongest team before they lost Matteo Trentin at the last minute. Now this talk of strength is relative to the competition or even compared to their leader, the team wasn’t quite up there (and they still look a season away from a building a fortress around Pogačar). But of course for the Slovenian, why defend when you can attack? He was making moves on the pavé to Arenberg while Jumbo-Visma were trying to stay upright in the yellow jersey by Stage 6 after winning in Longwy, then took more time at the Planche des Belles Filles and more still in Lausanne thanks to third place in the uphill finish. The next day he was sprinting for the finish in Megève and it meant five days in a row where his worst place was seventh.
Stage 11 started with a bang when Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert attacked early, adding intensity to an already frantic start. For Van der Poel this was a brief swansong as he’d quit the race, one of his moves that infuriates others because he’ll burn up energy that forces them to follow only for him to sit up. All the better for spectators and when a bigger move got across Jumbo-Visma had placed Christophe Laporte in the up the road too.
Once the race reached the Col du Télégraphe Jumbo-Visma activated their plan with Benoot launching Roglič in an attack. Pogačar gave chase. This was early to make moves and it seemed premature even. Onto the Galibier and the road out of Valloire and Vingegaard was making searing attacks like it was the final climb. It was thrilling and at one point Jumbo-Visma looked like a swarm of bees surrounding the yellow jersey. But Pogačar was holding his ground and as the higher the Galibier got, the more it looked like Vingegaard’s team had gone too soon. By the top of the pass it was just Pogačar and Vingegaard, a situation the Slovenian must have preferred.
Warren Barguil was first to start the Col du Granon, back after a long absence. His team mate Nairo Quintana set off in pursuit. Later Romain Bardet had a go and it signalled open season on Vingegaard and Pogačar and that the pace wasn’t so high. With 5km to go Vingegaard attacked. Rafał Majka gave chase but crucially Pogačar could not follow and in a flash Majka vanished, Vingegaard was away and Pogačar losing ground, dropped by Geraint Thomas, his yellow jersey flapping in the breeze. He was soon overhauled by David Gaudu and Adam Yates. Vingegaard took the stage and 2m51 on Pogačar to turn the Tour upside down.
There was the sense all this was coming but it was spectacular to see. In the moment the causes of Pogačar’s problems weren’t obvious, it looked like he hadn’t been eating and drinking enough but could have easily been the onset of Covid problems. Fortunately it was the former.
Why the highlight?
Non-stop action on the stage with moves flying from the start. Jumbo-Visma got to work on the Télégraphe pass and it was clear something big was going to happen, Van Aert was attacking, Laporte was up the road too and then seeing the attacks fly was dramatic. On the mighty Galibier it became duel between Pogačar and Vingegaard, a vintage mano a mano. Only the Lautaret descent offered a lull in the stage’s action. Come the Col du Granon, Vingegaard attacked and rode away, smashing our brittle certainties. It was also thrilling in the moment because if Vingegaard had won the day we presupposed Pogačar would be out to attack and overturn the race, it promised a battle to come.
With the benefit of hindsight…
We never quite got the ding-dong battle with Pogačar regaining ground and making Vingegaard respond in turn. But take a longer view and Pogačar’s supposed Tour hegemony was scattered to the wind. The interesting thing is just how inseparable how Vingegaard and Pogačar were for the three weeks, it often took mistakes and mishaps to separate them and this sets up the possibility of a very close Tour next summer.