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Tour de France

Tour de France daily digest: The revelation of the 2021 Tour de France

We are seeing Jonas Vingegaard at a special moment in his young career, where he is riding on the power of belief without expectation.

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Say it with me: “Yo-nus Ving-a-go”

I know, I know — these sounds do not exactly roll off the American tongue. Still, I’m requesting that you commit the name “Jonas Vingegaard” (pronunciation: see above) to your memory, because we are likely to see him achieve huge heights in grand tour races in the coming years.

Vingegaard, 24, is unquestionably the revelation of this Tour de France, and he’s vaulted from the designation of “that Danish guy with the funny name on Jumbo-Visma” to the lofty position of the only rider capable of challenging Tadej Pogačar on the highest mountains. He can climb. He can blaze a fast individual time trial. And he’s extremely smart — his 2021 ride is one of the more impressive breakthroughs we’ve seen in recent memory.

On Wednesday’s stage 17 Vingegaard’s star shone even brighter on the summit finish to the Col de Portet.

Pogačar’s accelerations on the final summit shredded the group of favorites until only Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz remained. After Carapaz attacked inside the final 2km Vingegaard was gapped off the back.

But rather than surrender to the pace, Vingegaard gritted his teeth and began clawing his way back, eventually catching back on within sight of the finish. He bolted around Carapaz to finish second on the stage and vault into second place overall on GC. It was a gritty and determined ride that you don’t often see from new performers on cycling’s biggest stage.

What Vingegaard has achieved at this Tour de France is historically noteworthy. Sure, every few years we see riders go from zero to hero in GC battles at the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia. This doesn’t really happen at the Tour de France, where the few breakthrough rides we do see come in the form of stage wins or flirtations with the top-10.

At the Tour, the battle for the final podium rarely vaults a brand new rider into the collective consciousness. The podium battle at the Tour is a place for grizzled veterans, up-and-coming superstars, and top dogs in their respective primes. It’s not the place for riders with names we haven’t yet learned to pronounce.

I cannot remember the last time we saw a rider with this level of anonymity battling for the podium at the Tour de France. In 2018 Primož Roglič was still known as the ski jumper-turned-cyclist when he flirted with the podium. But even by then, Roglič had already claimed stage wins at the Tour and Giro.

In 2014 Jean-Christophe Peraud’s 2nd place shocked fans, but Peraud had been kicking around the WorldTour for more than a decade at that point. Even Nairo Quintana’s thrilling Tour debut in 2013 came a year after he won a stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné, and three years after he won the Tour l’Avenir.

What’s Vingegaard’s most noteworthy result prior to the 2021 season? In 2019 he won a stage at the Tour of Poland. Hey, this isn’t a result to downplay, as a win is a win. But it’s not exactly a grand tour stage, or the GC at l’Avenir.

There’s been plenty written about his rapid rise, and much of this has focused on his recent transition to a full-time professional cyclist. Vingegaard famously worked at a fish factory, which I can only assume is the Danish version of an American kid delivering pizzas.

Of course Vingegaard’s thrilling ride this year has come about because of Roglič’s demise during the Tour’s opening week. The crashes and injuries that forced Roglič to abandon opened the door for Vingegaard to step into the team’s GC role.

But here’s the big difference between a new rider like Vingegaard, and a grizzled veteran, up-and-coming superstar, or usual GC favorite. He has very little outward pressure on his shoulders right now. Since he’s never been in this position, he’s not carrying the weight of expectation, or the pressure from teammates and team management to go out there and mark every move and win.

And that’s about to change. You see, Vingegaard’s huge ride this year will undoubtedly vault him into GC leadership roles at future races. And with those assignments come pressure, expectation, and stress. No longer will he fly under the radar, and this will undoubtedly impact the way he mentally approaches the races. Then, we will see whether Jonas Vingegaard has the mental and emotional skills to thrive in pro cycling’s pressure cooker.

I posed this question to Brent Bookwatler earlier this week on the VeloNews Podcast, and he offered some smart perspective on Vingegaard’s charmed position at the 2021 Tour.

“It showcases the power of belief without expectation. You see with a lot of these grand tour favorites that they’re under the burden of so much stress and pressure,” he said. “The young guys — the level is higher and higher and more and more is expected of them from the get-go. It’s a perfect storm to have all of that ability and have all of the belief, and then to have the opportunity and step into it. He probably wasn’t expecting to ride up in the GC at the Tour this year, but clearly has shown that he’s capable. People forget that when these podium GC rides happen, more often than not there are multiple guys on the team who are at that level, and they’re putting it on the line and sacrificing it for the leader.”

What does this mean? As fans, we should always remember that there are plenty of strong riders in the bunch — just not all of them get opportunities to shine. And when we see those opportunities open up, and young riders are allowed to attack and ride without expectation, we should appreciate those very special moments in time.

We should realize that we’re seeing a star of the future ignite before our very eyes.