GENEVA, Switzerland (VN) — Something’s different about this year’s Tour de France.
Every Tour has its story, and we saw a few nuances in the opening week of the 2022 Tour. The final chapter may very likely be the same as it’s been the past two editions, but this first week was the most interesting in years.
The first twist: Tadej Pogačar is seeing company near the top of the leaderboard after the first time trial and the first mountaintop finale.
Last year, Pogačar was gone, baby, gone at more or less at this same point of the race.
Things are different in large part due to the three-stage rollout in Denmark, which put everything on hold until the Tour hit French roads. Still, Pogačar is in the yellow jersey, already with stage two wins, but a rabble of stubborn riders and teams are not taking it lying down.
Three stacked-up stages in the Alps this week could very quickly put everything in its place and will reveal who truly brings the legs to win this Tour.
So what’s the takeaway from the opening nine days of racing in the 2022 Tour?
Here are five talking points that have shaped the Tour thus far:
Tadej Pogačar — the sphinx in yellow
As Ineos Grenadiers’ manager Rod Ellingworth said the other day, Pogačar is proving he is as good as last year, if not ever better.
Pogačar is pressing the action since Denmark. If anyone is hoping to exploit any sense of weakness, it’s been Pogačar who’s been doing the pushing.
Third in the opening time trial, he attacked his rivals on the cobblestones rather than racing conservatively. And he’s continued that aggressive take all week, attacking to win on a stage that typically wouldn’t suit a two-time defending champion in a grinding uphill sprint. He backed it up by winning at Super Belles Filles that was written in the stars, and he was third the next day, and then attacked Sunday in the closing meters to twist the screw a little more.
Pogi can climb, time trial, sprint out of a small groups for time bonuses, and, at least according to Matteo Jorgenson who watched him in the first week nose first to the wind, doesn’t even need teammates to ride in the echelons.
What’s a grand tour rival to do? Just try to stay close and hope he makes a mistake? It’s not a very exciting way to race, but thankfully, Pogačar is delivering all the sparks the Tour needs to keep things interesting.
Some are trying to compare him to Eddy Merckx or even Lance Armstrong, but the rider whose trajectory most resembles Pogačar’s is Greg LeMond. Like Pogačar, LeMond was a child prodigy whose pure talent and joy of racing transformed the sport.
That’s what the peloton is living now. Pogačar is a transformative rider, and everyone is trying to get their heads around on how to beat him.
Just as Ineos Grenadiers dominated the past decade, Pogačar is now the pulse and tempo of the entire peloton.
After nine days, Pogačar has the entire peloton wrapped around his finger
Jonas Vingegaard emerges as a legitimate threat
So if Pogačar isn’t going to lose, who is capable of possibly beating him?
The first week confirmed one name — Jonas Vingegaard.
Second to Pogačar last year, Vingegaard was a bit of an enigma coming into this year’s Tour. Was last year just a fluke? His spring didn’t suggest great things, but he’s arrived at the Tour in fine trim.
No rider’s been able to match Pogačar so far except the former fish packer. Now 25 — two years older than Pogačar — Vingegaard offers up an tantalizing possibility for this Tour. If he can stay close in the coming days, then anything can happen with only a 39-second deficit.
But as Vingegaard said on Sunday, Pogačar isn’t likely to give up seconds very easily. So how do you possibly beat him?
That’s where Jumbo-Visma is hoping its numerical advantage might pay off. On Sunday, the team sent Wout van Aert up the road in a curious move. It seemed to have the desired effect, and UAE Emirates took the bait, and put all of its riders on the front to control the break, and quickly burned off most of his helpers.
Despite consistently being there for him so far, many perceive Pogačar’s lone weak spot as his team. His rivals believe that if they can isolate him, Pogačar might be susceptible to successive attacks from a string of GC rivals.
If Pogačar suffers a rare lapse, it’s Vingegaard who is first in line to fill the void.
The quiet Dane seems steely enough to be up for the challenge. It’s all about the numbers, and when it comes to going uphill, no one’s closer than Vingegaard.
Neilson Powless and Bettiol-Gate
The biggest story of the week in terms of the polemica scale blew up Wednesday across the cobbles involving EF Education-EasyPost.
At the time, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, perhaps based in my focus on Neilson Powless as nearly the first U.S. rider in 15 years to come close to ride into the yellow jersey.
Yet it’s hard to underplay the colossal error committed by Alberto Bettiol in the decisive moments of the stage.
Bettiol — just in case you missed it — started pulling at the front like a man possessed in the decisive cobble sectors when he had two teammates up the road, one of them perhaps with a very good chance to ride into the yellow, and at the same time dropping his other designated GC leader Rigoberto Urán in his wake.
It’s hard to say if Bettiol’s acceleration truly doomed Powless’s yellow jersey chances because Van Aert came roaring back to try to limit Vingegaard’s losses to the attacking Pogačar, almost accidentally defending yellow.
It was a cruel twist for Powless, however, who lost his last chance at the maillot jaune the next day when Pogačar won atop a small uphill finale in a reduced bunch sprint. Had Pogačar not won, Powless would have been in yellow.
And had Bettiol not pulled at that moment that seemingly set up Pogačar for his race-change acceleration, Powless might have been at least one day at the top of the GC standings in the sport’s biggest event.
It’s hard to read between the conflicting post-stage comments because everyone apologizes profusely, and Bettiol said he simply got caught up in the heat of the moment.
Yet within the team one has to wonder if the orders were not crystal clear on the day. Despite being a proven winner on the cobbles as a Tour of Flanders champion, one can imagine Bettiol most certainly would have been told to help protect his GC captains, even more so if one was up the road and the other was in the rearview mirror.
Either it was a major blunder on Bettiol’s part, or the team didn’t properly spell out what every rider’s role should be. Like most messes, it’s probably a mixture of both.
All the subsequent virtual ink that was spilled in the aftermath was warranted.
Ineos Grenadiers left waiting on the sidelines
It must be tough days inside the team bus at Ineos Grenadiers.
After nearly a decade of calling the shots at the Tour de France, cycling’s richest team is now largely forced to sidelines by the spectacular rise of Pogačar.
The super team won eight yellow jerseys in nine years with four different riders, an unprecedented feat in cycling history. It seemed poised to keep barnstorming into the future after penning Egan Bernal to a multi-year contract.
Yet no one could have predicted that Pogačar would arrive so soon and so dramatically that it’s created absolutely turmoil inside the Ineos bus.
Publicly, the team puts up a brave face. And the team has done an admirable job at recruitment, at building a strong Tour unit, at winning races across a wide spectrum of the calendar, yet when it comes to the Tour, the team simply doesn’t bring that guaranteed winner.
For years, it counted on Chris Froome and built “Fortress Froome” around him to smash back any would-be usurpers, and then let Froome grind his way into the yellow jersey. It might not have been pretty, but Froome had an uncanny capacity to squeeze watts out of his gangly frame.
That translated into a decade-long dominance of the Tour.
Now we’re in the Pogačar Era, and Ineos Grenadiers’ only real play is waiting to see if the Slovenian makes a mistake.
The team lost its third leg of its three-pronged GC approach when Dani Martínez faded Sunday. Tom Pidcock is hanging tough in the top-10, but most expect him to fade in the devilish climbs looming in the Alps. That leaves Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates, both of who have lost time so far on Pogačar on every decisive stage.
Ineos Grenadiers could still spring a trap, and let’s hope it tries. The team brings the most grand tour experience to the Tour and has the know-how and horsepower to set something up.
If a few other teams pile on, it could be something spectacular.
The Tour de France seems more popular outside of France
Perhaps there’s a novelty element of a once-in-a-lifetime event, but when the Tour leaves France, the race seems wildly more popular than it does inside France.
Crowds in Denmark were among the biggest anyone has ever seen, perhaps eclipsing the amount of fans on the roadside at Yorkshire a few years ago.
Even when the Tour crosses into Belgium or Switzerland, and it did in the first week, more crowds turn out to see the race.
Of course, French fans are used to seeing the Tour year after year. There’s nothing particular special about the Tour if you live at the base of the Tourmalet. The Tour comes every year or two, whether you like it or not.
Yet the highly successful grand départ in Denmark only served to reconfirm the Tour’s huge international appeal.
The Denmark excursion largely drew positive reviews, even if the foreign starts in any grand tour typically do not deliver the most exciting level of racing, in part because the riders are on largely unfamiliar roads and because the crowds are simply so big that they squeeze down onto the road.
There are still dreams of bringing the Tour to ever further destinations.
Denmark was still feasible, and much of the Tour entourage was able to return to French roads with just an overnight transfer.
That seems to be determining factor in terms of how far a Tour could go.
Some still dream of a Tour start in the United States or Canada, but that would require even more complicated logistical hurdles and a more intense physical burden on the cyclists.
There’s no doubt the crowds will turn out Thursday for the first return to Alpe d’Huez since 2018. After all, it’s Bastille Day. It cannot get more French than that