Team UAE Emirates obliterated the Tour de France peloton with a pace so relentlessly high they turned stage 17 into the most brutal yet, leaving big names scattered and gasping for air along the baking hot roads of the Pyrenees, and set up a hard-earned victory for Tadej Pogacar on the Peyragudes summit. But the one man they most wanted to crack, the yellow jersey of Jonas Vingegaard, clung on gamely to Pogacar’s wheel throughout the blitz of pace and pain, and despite everything his overall lead remains virtually intact.
The day started badly for Pogacar with the news that his key mountain lieutenant, Rafal Majka, had withdrawn after tearing a thigh muscle when his chain broke during stage 16. But what was left of UAE Emirates attacked regardless, as if this was the last throw of the dice, with young Dane Mikkel Bjerg shattering the peloton with an enormous turn on the front over the first two climbs and the American Brendon McNulty doing likewise all the way to the gruelling finish.
One by one the capable climbers dropped away: Adam Yates, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Alpe d’Huez winner Tom Pidcock, and even Vingegaard’s bodyguard in the mountains Sepp Kuss, leaving the yellow jersey isolated and potentially vulnerable. McNulty’s pace continued the assault into the penultimate climb where Geraint Thomas was finally shedded too, eventually finishing fourth.
It left McNulty to lead his teammate Pogacar into battle with Vingegaard in the final throes. Over the past few days Pogacar has attacked seemingly at random, suddenly surging in an effort to catch his rival either sleeping or suffering, without success. He tried only one burst here to which the imperious Vingegaard reacted instantly, and after that the three of them climbed to Peyragudes together in convoy led by McNulty, through a throng of raucous fans on the road.
With a hundred yards left, McNulty – who collected the day’s combativity prize for his mammoth effort – finally moved aside and left the two outstanding riders of this Tour to a straight fight for the stage win. Vingegaard launched first but Pogacar came around the outside and showed a last burst of speed to the line, where he raised both arms aloft as a broken Vingegaard collapsed on to his handlebars in the background.
“The way the team rode today, we were only four riders, and to take the stage win is incredible,” Pogacar said. “Mikkel rode like a climber today, he set such a good pace, it was unbelievable. I felt good with that pace. And then Brandon did an amazing job, a special mention to him.
“I gave absolutely everything. I know that I need to win, there’s no other way. I gave it all for the team to the line, and I’m so happy.”
It was Pogacar’s third stage win of this Tour, pipping Vingegaard in almost identical fashion to the climax of stage seven atop La Planche des Belles Filles. But these narrow victories add up to very little set against Vingegaard’s bruising stage 11 win on the Col du Granon, where Pogacar cracked and lost nearly three minutes.
That may prove the decisive moment of this Tour, when the Slovenian succumbed to Jumbo-Visma’s pincer strategy and paid the price for his attempts to punch back. Vingegaard lost only four bonus seconds here, and he remains 2 min 18 sec ahead overall.
“I fought until the finish,” said Vingegaard, who stands on the verge of winning his first Tour de France after finishing runner-up to Pogacar last year. “Of course I lost four seconds but I’m still happy. We never know when Tadej will attack, often he attacks when you least expect it. You just need to be vigilant and I was today.”
Ineos felt the heat with Yates, Pidcock and Dani Martinez all losing touch, but the 2018 champion Thomas battled on longer than almost everyone else and is well-placed to earn the third podium of his Tour de France career. The Welshman explained that he needed to take it easy at certain moments or risk blowing up, and credited the extraoardinary effort put in by UAE Team Emirates. “Who won?” Thomas asked at the finish. Pogacar, came the reply. “Well they deserved that, then.”
Thursday’s stage 18 is even more demanding, on paper at least, with three huge mountain climbs including the hors catégorie Col d’Aubisque and a summit finish on Hautacam. Given stage 19 is one for the sprinters, and the time trial on stage 20 offers only limited scope to regain time, Pogacar and his remaining comrades must throw everything at finally cracking Vingegaard in the high mountains tomorrow.
Does Pogacar still believe he can win the Tour? “Yes. I am optimistic. I don’t think (Vingegaard) is too strong. We still have means to fight and we will give everything to get the yellow jersey back.
“Tomorrow is a more hard day,” he added, with the faintest whisper of a smile. “We can try again tomorrow.”
1 Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 3hrs 25mins 51secs,
2 Jonas Vingegaard (Den) Jumbo-Visma at same time,
3 Brandon McNulty (USA) UAE Team Emirates +32,
4 Geraint Thomas (Gbr) INEOS Grenadiers +02:07,
5 Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Qazaqstan Team +02:34.