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Tour de France

Tour de France: Don’t write Tadej Pogačar off but he was the weakest link in the UAE offensive on stage 17

The defending champion hasn't landed a single blow on Jonas Vingegaard and has just two days to realistically crack him.

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Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) may have won his third Tour de France stage in this year’s race, and nibbled four seconds off Jonas Vingegaard’s (Jumbo-Visma) race lead at the Peyragudes summit, but the Dane was very much the real winner on a day that saw the yellow jersey weather the storm created by UAE.

UAE Team Emirates came into stage 17 without Rafal Majka, who sustained a muscle tear the previous day when his chain snapped, but the Tour’s defending champions came out swinging, even with just four riders left in the race.

Marc Hirschi has been quiet most of the race but kept his leader safe in the first block of racing before Mikkel Bjerg set a furious tempo on the Hourquette d’Ancizan and the lower slopes of the Col de Val Louron-Azet, where Brandon McNulty took over.

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If the Dane’s ride was startling, the American’s was simply sensational. He not only saw off most of the top 10 GC riders but he reduced the lead group to just himself, his team leader and Vingegaard.

The Dane was isolated and in the perfect position for Pogačar to prove that he had the mettle and the power to resurrect his challenge. Bjerg and McNulty had ridden out of their skin but what came from Pogačar was rather passive compared to what had come from his limited but robust team on the earlier climbs.

With 200m to go on the Val Louron-Azet the Slovenian accelerated. It was one of those digs he put in on stage 16, at Mende and on Alpe d’Huez and just like before Vingegaard was on his wheel in a flash. In fact, the only damage done by Pogačar saw McNulty lose ground before eventually coming back on the descent.

The trio then hit the final climb together with McNulty setting the pace until the final few hundred meters. Rather tellingly, the leaders failed to put more than a handful of seconds into Geraint Thomas, the fourth placed rider on the road once he had dropped Romain Bardet.

With the line in sight, however, Pogačar rose from the saddle. A week ago he would have remained upright, sprinting to the line and taking time, but within a few meters he was seated again and it was Vingegaard who looked the more likely winner. The Slovenian fought back, took four bonus seconds and another stage win, but he now has two days to realistically overturn a 2:18 deficit.

It’s not an impossible task for Pogačar, what happened at the Tour in 2020 proved that. But while UAE foursome rode like an octet, their leader hasn’t been able to expose a single crack in Vingegaard’s armor so far.

“I think that the fact from today is that the mood is higher even though we are down four guys,” Pogačar said after he was congratulated on his win.

“It’s changed the dynamic now and tomorrow we will be really optimistic and motivational. As you see Brandon, Mikkel and Marc are all super good. I think that we can try super hard, and try to take time back. Today we saw that we are strong.”

The two-time champion was then asked about Vingegaard and whether the Dane had shown any weakness during the stage.

Pogačar’s response was telling, with the UAE leader suggesting that if he enjoyed the efforts of a full team he might have cracked Vingegaard. That might be true but it’s also worth noting that Vingegaard is also racing without his two best climbers by his side, and Wout van Aert has been using energy to seal up the green jersey. UAE has been behind the single focus of Pogačar since the race left Copenhagen.

“His plan is to be really strong and not to crack but I think that that if today I had Rafal Majka with me, or Soler or George Bennett, I think with Brandon, Mikkel and everyone we could have made a harder race and maybe already cracked Jonas before. But I think tomorrow is another day to try, and we will try because the harder the race gets the better it is,” he said.

Tomorrow is indeed another day, and it’s arguably the hardest stage of the race with a summit finish at Hautacam.

It’s hard to know how much time Pogačar will need to bring back on the mountain in order to tilt the balance of overall victory back in his direction — what happened in 2020 wiped away the idea of normality — but he has to show more than he did on stage 17. Otherwise the Tour is likely lost.

“We will see tomorrow if he has any weaknesses.”

Pogačar has no choice and this is by far his toughest challenge yet.