I’m still getting my head around what happened on stage 11 of the Tour de France. Maybe you are too.
Tadej Pogačar was in the wheels of the little lead group heading up the Col du Granon.
An hour earlier, he had handled a dozen attacks from the mighty Jumbo-Visma by himself like a cycling Chuck Norris then smiled at the camera serenely, as if it was nothing. The Tour was continuing to go his way, it appeared.
The next, he was in freefall. Dropped by Jonas Vingegaard, then inadvertently left behind by Rafal Majka, his own teammate. Twenty, thirty, then forty seconds down on his rival, the gap accelerating as quickly as a motorbike.
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Adam Yates seemed briefly frozen, uncertain about whether to pass the reigning champion. Maybe this was a trap and he was going to spring back to life and off up the road.
No. How ordinary Pogačar suddenly looked. His yellow cloak of invincibility was unzipped, minutes before it would be taken off him, showing his pasty belly. He weaved up the closing stretch, visibly slower than Vingegaard.
In five interminable kilometers, the Dane put 2:51 into him. At last, Tadej Pogačar knows how it feels to be Pogačar-ed.
He doesn’t get lose often – he has won his last five consecutive stage races, going back to April 2021 – and he doesn’t lose like that.
It felt like being told as a kid that the stork doesn’t deliver babies or the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist. When an entire belief system is upturned, a god revealed to be a mortal, it takes a while to compute.
I was struck by the loneliness of Pogačar in perdition. No shelter given by anyone. That’s pro cycling: when a rival, let alone the superhuman one, is down, you kick them harder.
There were no teammates nearby, just like most of the day. The difference could hardly have been more stark: climber-light, COVID-19-afflicted UAE Team Emirates versus mob-handed Jumbo-Visma, who had three riders buzzing around Vingegaard most of the day.
And Wout van Aert up the road as back-up, which is worth four more. It was the might of the collective beating the impressive individual, writ large.
There is nothing unlikeable about Pogačar as a champion or a person. The congratulations he gave to Vingegaard after the finish are the mark of him as a man.
He has forced the rest of the bunch to tailor their plans around defeating him. By overcoming all obstacles with serenity, crushing the cobbles on the wheel of a Classics specialist, making the insanely difficult look insouciant for the last two years.
Usually, there are hints of weakness or hairline cracks; instead, up until stage 11, it looked for all the world like Pogačar’s Tour again.
Pride comes before an implosion
There may have been some hubris involved in Pogačar’s time loss. I had felt like shouting exasperatedly at the TV screen while he raced up the Galibier: “You don’t need to follow every attack.” He tried to do too much by himself, too often.
Whether it was pride, the heat, lack of fuelling or his own front-foot racing philosophy, it came back to bite him. It was a timely reminder that Pogačar – who is only 23 years old – is still finding and exceeding his limits.
Pogačar is here to win a bike race, not a popularity contest, but this show of weakness might inadvertently make more people warm to him. On a fundamental level, fans want to engage emotionally with their heroes, and they cannot relate to juggernauts who power through every possible challenge or win all the time.
Our own lives flutter and fluctuate, after all. And in sport, we also want drama, change, fresh dynamics.
Pogačar has won the last two Tours de France, and can still win the 2022 race – he lost an important battle on the Granon, not the war. But whatever happens, this is the most compelling and testing race of his life. We will find out a lot more about what he’s really made of.
Jonas Vingegaard has taken the yellow jersey, deservedly, and it changes the dynamic of the whole race. Because the whole Tour and its cadence leading up to stage 11 had been tactically predicated on that head-scratcher: how do you beat Tadej Pogačar?
It seemed a conceptual question of the ilk of “how does one person lift a bulldozer?” Frivolous, unanswerable.
It took everything Jumbo-Visma could throw at him. But losing almost three minutes in one fell swoop? “I never thought he’d blow up like that,” rival Geraint Thomas said afterwards.
Those last five kilometers on the Col du Granon were the Slovenian’s own loss of innocence, if not his aura. It might dent his own self-confidence. Or, given his laidback ways, he may brush it off as quickly as a bad training ride. He can race off the back foot now with his weakened team.
Regardless, the memory of his implosion will stay in the minds of his rivals long after this Tour de France. They have lost a lot of fear. They now know that he’s incredible, but not impregnable.