Hautacam, France: Jonas Vingegaard showed his class when he waited for defending champion Tadej Pogacar after a fall, before going on to beat his Slovenian rival by over a minute on the Hautacam mountain on stage 18 of the Tour de France on Thursday.
The stage win leaves Denmark’s Vingegaard with an advantage that, barring disaster or a bad fall, should see him ride up the Champs Elysees to win the 2022 title on Sunday.
“I don’t want to talk about winning the Tour yet, let’s talk about it in Paris, there are three days to go,” Vingegaard said at the line.
The pair have been shadowing each other the entire race, with Pogacar winning three stages and taking the overall leader’s yellow jersey by stage seven, before Vingegaard took it off him in the baking heatwave in the Alps.
Since then Pogacar has relentlessly attacked the Dane in a stubborn effort to close the gap.
The loss of four of his UAE teammates to positive Covid tests and falls however hurt those chances.
On Thursday, Vingegaard’s Jumbo teammate Wout van Aert acted as a sherpa for his team leader on the final climb, and it was at that moment that Pogacar finally cracked.
Misjudged a corner
Earlier and likely equally as damaging, some 28km from home, Pogacar misjudged a corner and Vingegaard cut inside him, spooking the Slovenian, who then wobbled and slipped off into a gutter.
The champion swiftly picked himself up, ignoring the gash on his left hand as he hammered the pedal down in pursuit.
Vingegaard, after at first attacking the opportunity, had a change of heart, waiting for his rival, before the two grasped each other’s hand as Pogacar drew up alongside.
“We like each other, we get on and we respect each other,” said the Dane.
The gesture will likely serve Vingegaard’s reputation well, within the cycling code of honour, and with the wider public.
Vingegaard now leads Pogacar by 3 minutes and 26 seconds, while Ineos veteran Geraint Thomas is still third at 8 minutes exactly, three minutes ahead of fourth-placed David Gaudu.
This was the sixth stage finish on this iconic Pyrenean climb, with Vingegaard’s fellow Dane Bjarne Riis in 1996 and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali in 2014 both going on to win the Tour after winning at the summit.
Stage 19 runs through the isolated Tarn region and will likely end in a bunch sprint.
Saturday’s stage however is a brutal 41km individual time trial, leaving a glimmer of hope for Pogacar, who won the 2020 Tour with a last-gasp turnaround.
Stage 21 is a largely ceremonial run into Paris, ending with eight laps of the Champs Elysees.