Pogacar gets the reassurance he needed against Vingegaard at Paris-Nice

 Tadej Pogacar

Tadej Pogacar

Tadej Pogačar routinely travels to places nobody else can reach, but at last year’s Tour de France, he always seemed to have company on journeys he would rather have taken alone. He attacked every which way last July, but he never once succeeded in shaking Jonas Vingegaard loose.

All sorts of explanations were touted for Pogačar’s struggles on the pivotal day on the Col du Granon – the heat, his depleted team, the altitude – but as the race drew on, it became increasingly apparent that the real problem was Vingegaard himself. For the first time in his short career, Pogacar had come up against someone who had his number.

Although Pogačar ended 2022 with resounding victory in his next meeting with Vingegaard at Il Lombardia, he will have spent the winter still harbouring doubts about his ability to wrest the Tour title back from the Dane. Even on the 2021 Tour, after all, once Pogačar had effectively sealed the race on the first two days in the Alps, he was never able to drop Vingegaard again, and he was even distanced on Mont Ventoux.

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The stalemate continued during their game of correspondence chess last month, played from opposite ends of Spain. In Andalusia, Pogačar’s aggression dominated Jaén Paraiso Interior and the Ruta del Sol. In Galicia a week later, Vingegaard countered with a hat-trick of stage wins and an overall victory at O Gran Camiño.

The results were similar, but the style was subtly different, as Philippa York noted in her cogent preview of Paris-Nice last week. While Vingegaard was content to limit himself to finishing off his Jumbo-Visma team’s work in the finale, Pogačar seemed to be straining to put together a magnum opus every time he pinned on a number.

“I get the feeling there’s a certain amount of reassurance going on here,” she wrote of Pogačar. “He needs to know he’s still number one, still the reference and convince himself and everyone else that he only lost the Tour last year because of tactical errors.”

In that light, stage 4 of Paris-Nice to La Loge des Gardes served an important purpose for Pogačar. Stage victory at the summit also yielded the yellow jersey, but one senses the day’s real prize was the reassurance Pogačar garnered from the rare pleasure of dropping Vingegaard on a climb. Yes, it can be done.

And, despite everything he has achieved to this point, it’s possible that Pogačar needed the win here far more than his rival did. If he had come up short against Vingegaard on Wednesday, he might even have started to develop a complex.

Pogačar certainly afforded his rival considerable respect here. Even though UAE Team Emirates had performed the pace-making on the approach to the climb – teeing up their leader for the intermediate sprint en route – Pogačar began the ascent locked on Vingegaard’s wheel, waiting for him to make the opening gambit.

When Vingegaard attacked with 4.2km to go, Pogačar immediately followed, but he resisted the temptation to get lured into a slugging match immediately. Instead, he smiled playfully to the television cameras and declined to come through when Vingegaard lowered the pace. He preferred to assess his rival up close, all while allowing the remnants of the front group to catch up again soon afterwards.

“First, he launched an attack, and I thought he was feeling super, super great, so I didn’t counter, I was just waiting for the rest,” Pogačar said afterwards. Something seemed to tell him, mind, that he had Vingegaard’s measure.

With 2.4km to go, Pogačar launched an acceleration of his own, gliding across to earlier attacker David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ). Vingegaard tried to follow, and he initially drew close before Pogačar’s second kick distanced him irretrievably. From there, Vingegaard would struggle, fading badly in the final kilometre to place sixth on the stage, crossing the line 43 seconds after Pogačar had outsprinted Gaudu.

Was Pogačar surprised to learn that Vingegaard had struggled so? “Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “In the end, it was really tough, and I think he just missed a little bit to catch me. Then he couldn’t close, and he cracked a little bit.”

He didn’t say it, of course, but the news must have felt like an extra victory.

Stage 4 at Paris-NiceStage 4 at Paris-Nice

Stage 4 at Paris-Nice


And yet, for all that we are in the throes of the so-called ‘new cycling,’ where every race seems to be contested with a ferocity that suggests it might be the last, most of the truisms and caveats of yesteryear remain relevant today.

Pogačar’s victory at La Loges des Gardes clearly puts him in a commanding position to win Paris-Nice – he is 10 seconds clear of Gaudu and 44 ahead of Vingegaard – but it changes nothing substantial about his task at the Tour de France, still almost four months away.

Besides, this week last year, Pogačar was running through the scales to a similar effect at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning stages at Bellante and Carpegna. And, like this year, Vingegaard had started last season with an eye-catching February win at the Drôme Classic, but he was still powerless to stop Pogačar in Italy, finishing second at over a minute at Carpegna.

As Vingegaard assesses this Paris-Nice setback, he will find solace in its context. Whether at Tirreno-Adriatico last year or in the 2021 Tour’s sodden passage through the Alps, Pogačar has usually outperformed him in chilly conditions such as these. By contrast, Vingegaard has always resisted Pogačar in the soaring temperatures more common in July.

Vingegaard will also realise that he made errors on Wednesday, perhaps of overconfidence, certainly of over-exuberance. “Maybe he shouldn’t have attacked himself in the first place, and that cost him,” Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Grischa Niermann said. “Jonas felt really good, and I think in the end, he went a little bit over the limit, and that cost him. He shouldn’t have done that, but that’s racing.”

In the end, maybe both men took what they needed from the day. Pogačar got some reassurance, and Vingegaard got a lesson. They’ll do it all over again on the Col de la Couillole on Saturday, not to mention in five different mountain ranges in July. This duel isn’t going away anytime soon.