The Tour de France has witnessed a swing in the leaderboard after moving into the Alps, where we were treated to a glorious stage that was reminiscent of yesteryear: of an age before earpieces and potentiometers, when cyclists would risk life and limb with nothing more for support than their own courage. The major loser on Wednesday was Tadej Pogacar, but it is he who deserves the greatest praise, because he simply never offers any let-up. To observers of my generation, he reminds us of Eddy Merckx, who wanted to cross the finish line first from the opening stage to the last. He never hedged his bets; with the yellow jersey on his back, he’d attack and attack, in search of an ever greater advantage. Much the same can be said of Pogacar, who had a bad day on Wednesday.
“You have to manage your energy in the Tour,” Bernardo Ruiz, the first Spaniard to finish on the podium (in 1952), used to say to me. He was critical of the way Federico Bahamontes would put his foot to the floor right from the off, “using up all his gas on wild goose chases”, joining every breakaway to the point of exhaustion. “Only Merckx could do that,” he’d say. Now, Pogacar is trying to emulate the Belgian, giving chase whenever anyone makes their move, refusing to give up an inch and even sprinting to the line when only lower positions are stake, to assert his superiority. Because he likes to, because he’s competitive, and maybe also because he wants to intimidate his rivals: watch out, I bite.
Pogacar learns lesson as Vingegaard takes lead
So, for the good of the race, it was positive news to see the back-to-back Tour winner lose ground. It was a thrilling stage, which took in the Télégraphe and the Galibier, where it all kicked off, before finishing up on the Granon. The Galibier and the Granon are both over 2,000 metres high - that’s an altitude at which cyclists start to feel a hand around their throat. Jonas Vingegaard put in an inspired ride, and Pogacar dropped to third in the overall standings, more than two minutes behind the Dane, but isn’t down and out just yet. On Thursday, when we see him climb the other face of the Galibier, the Croix de Fer and the Alpe d’Huez, we’ll find out whether it was just a bad day at the office. For now, he has learned that you pay the price for unnecessary exertions in the Tour. Unless you’re Eddy Merckx, of course.