It was widely predicted that the 2019 Tour de France would be a two-horse fight between the reigning champion, the Dane Jonas Vingegaard, and the Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who had previously won the event in 2020 and 2021. The Pyrenees Mountains were widely anticipated to provide the team with their first serious challenge on Days 5 and 6.
Vingegaard won on Wednesday, but Pogacar on Thursday, and the Tour now seems to be a two-week dogfight between them.
On Wednesday, Vingegaard was the one to draw first blood. Jai Hindley of Australia grabbed the stage victory and the leader’s yellow jersey for the time being, but the main action was farther back on the course. With a mile left till the top of the Col de Marie Blanque, Vingegaard pulled ahead of Pogacar by a whopping 53 seconds, turning an 11-second deficit into a victory.
The gruelling Thursday stage included the infamous Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet as well as a critical uphill finish in Cauterets-Cambasque.
Aspin was certainly steep, but Vingegaard and Pogacar held off attacking because they knew two more challenging ascents were ahead. On the Tourmalet, a component of more than eighty Tours since 1910, tensions flared.
Categories 1, 2, 3, and 4 represent more difficult ascents on the Tour. The Tourmalet is one of just a few peaks so challenging that they are considered “hors catégorie,” or “beyond categorization.” The peak is about 7,000 feet above sea level.
With approximately two miles to go before reaching the peak of the Tourmalet, Vingegaard attacked with the support of his powerful Jumbo-Visma squad, causing the race leader, Hindley, and many other riders to fall behind. When his last partner, the American Sepp Kuss, dropped out, he and the race’s other great star were forced to battle it out alone. The pressure was maintained by Vingegaard. Pogacar, though, was able to hold to him all the way to the peak, which was not the case on Wednesday. Vingegaard received the encouraging message, “You really put Pogacar on the limit,” over the team radio.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, an avid cyclist, watched the race from an officials’ vehicle as a group of eight riders linked forces at the foot of the last climb.
Up until the last three kilometres, everyone followed Vingegaard’s colleague Wout van Aert’s relentless pace. Only the Polish runner Michal Kwiatkowski could keep up with Pogacar, and he was a long shot.
Vingegaard gave it another go until, two kilometres from the summit, the ascent suddenly became very steep. Once again, Pogacar matched his speed, leaving the world’s top riders in their dust.
At first, it seemed that Vingegaard was the stage’s primary motivator; but, with a mile and a half to go, the story took an unexpected turn when Pogacar launched an ambush. Vingegaard seemed to be taken by surprise and unable to keep up. Pogacar sped to the top of the mountain and won the stage.
Vingegaard won the yellow jersey as the overall leader, 53 seconds ahead of Pogacar coming into the stage. However, Pogacar is not far behind, at only 25 seconds behind. With a 1 minute and 34 second deficit, Hindley is now in third place.
After two relatively easy days, the trek up the Puy de Dôme on Sunday looms huge. And after that, there are five more mountainous stages.
If Vingegaard hadn’t passed Pogacar on two crucial stages towards the middle of the week, the Tour could have seemed hopeless. Pogacar instead predicted that “it’s going to be a big, big battle until the last stage, I think.”