Vingegaard emerges as Tour de France’s alpha as doping questions swirl

Vingegaard emerges as Tour de France’s alpha as doping questions swirl
Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard of team Jumbo-Visma in action during the 16th stage of the Tour de France 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Martin Divisek)

This year’s version of the famous race lived up to its billing as an epic duel between the two dominant Grand Tour forces of the era. Then cycling’s old suspicions rose again.

By the time you read this, Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard should have wrapped up his second Tour de France title after resisting the challenge of two-time champion Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia.

“Resisting” was apt for the first two weeks of the Tour as the main protagonists punched and counterpunched through Spain, the Pyrenees and central France. Vingegaard then crushed Pogacar in week three.

Bit players such as sensational sprinter Jasper Philipsen, who won four stages, received their plaudits and briefly caught the eye. But the central battle between dour and seemingly immovable Vingegaard, who has turned saying absolutely nothing of value in media engagements into an art form, and the more flamboyant Pogacar, was the narrative that drove the 2023 Tour.

Loyally sacrificing personal glory

Through mountains and valleys, plains and mounds, over the first two weeks, each tried to “crack” the other. Vingegaard’s expensively assembled Jumbo-Visma team and Pogacar’s slightly less expensive Team UAE Emirates traded blows.

Domestiques (helpers) from both teams loyally sacrificed personal glory to protect and launch their leaders.

Cycling is very hierarchical. At the Tour de France, even arguably the best all-round bike rider in the world, Belgium’s Wout van Aert, was there to serve Vingegaard.

The loyal lieutenants rode themselves to a standstill at times, as Van Aert did earlier in the race, to ensure their leaders were in the best possible shape to commence battle in the final kilometres of a stage.

Vingegaard, Pogacar and aides did all they could for two weeks over 2,700km. But, in two days over 300km in week three, the Dane smashed the field and Pogacar.

It was violent and decisive.

On Stage 16, a 22.4km time trial, known as “the race of truth” as there is no protection and help from domestiques, from Passy to Combloux, Vingegaard broke the elastic band that had held the rivals in tension.

Vingegaard’s overall lead was only 10 seconds at the start of the time trial. By the end of the course, which took him just 32 minutes and 36 seconds, Vingegaard led the race by 1:48 with Stage 17’s giant day on the Alps to come.

Stage 17 was Pogacar’s last chance to find something to turn the tables and win back significant time. But, by the end, Pogacar was broken and Vingegaard safely in yellow with an unassailable 7:35 lead.

Ever human, Pogacar’s words, captured on team radio, which is now being broadcast to a global audience, will go into Tour de France legend.

“I’m gone, I’m dead,” the Slovenian radioed to his team car, 7.6km from the top of the 2,304m Col de la Loze. At that moment, Vingegaard, two minutes ahead up the road, became the victor in waiting.

Pogacar, who came into the tour underdone after a broken wrist curtailed his preparation, had no more to give. He’d done all he could for a fortnight, but like a 55kg Terminator, Vingegaard just kept coming, never going away, never cracking, always a menacing presence.

When Pogacar uttered those words, which must have been hard to say in a sport built on suffering, pragmatism took over. “Race for the podium, Adam,” the Team UAE Emirates’ director sportif shouted to Adam Yates.

The Englishman had worked for Pogacar, now he had been given licence to try to earn a top-three finish in Paris. He duly did.

It revealed the harsh code that drives the sport. There is no sympathy for weakness; always a relentless pursuit to make the best of a bad situation. The king is dead, long live the new king.

More than glucose and isotonic?

Owing to cycling’s chequered past with doping, Vingegaard’s unflinching performances have drawn questions about whether they may be enhanced by more than glucose gels and isotonic drinks.

There is no evidence to back up these thoughts, and data on his performances is difficult to calibrate. Without full details of Vingegaard’s power output in comparison to Pogacar and others, it’s all speculation.

And Vingegaard was tested by doping control at least 10 times during the Tour. Both Jumbo-Visma and Team UAE Emirates were taken for extra blood tests on the morning of 19 July, the day of the Tour’s biggest climbs.

“I understand it’s hard to trust in cycling but I think everyone is different than 20 years ago. I can tell from my heart that I don’t take anything I would not give my daughter and I would not give her any drugs,” Vingegaard said.

He was then asked about the possibility of taking substances not yet on the banned list.

‘We’re working from the plan’

“I’ve never heard about such a substance so … it’s hard for me to say anything about it, if it should be illegal or not.”

Vingegaard has maintained the race has been about planning and choosing when to expend the most energy to overcome Pogacar. Stage 17 on the 2,300m Col de la Loze was the pinnacle of the strategy.

“We’re working from the plan. Mostly it’s the performance team who make the plan on what my qualities are … they do it already in December,” Vingegaard said of the strategy.

“They do it kind of early and then work on it all the time. We didn’t change the plan. We stuck to the plan because we thought it was the best. We talked about it before; we really believe in the plan.”

Pogacar said: “I understand. I get this question every year on the Tour,” when asked whether he understood why his performances and those of Vingegaard had come under scrutiny.

“We are riding fast. I must say that every stage we go full gas and it’s hard. But I understand people asking questions because of what happened in the past,” Pogacar said.

“Some people don’t get over it and I completely understand them.” DM

This story first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paul van Woudenberg says:

    It’s a cheap shot to say that “doping questions swirl” in what by all accounts has been a very clean tour. If you do even a bit of research you will see the extent to which these athletes are monitored during the race, far more than ever before. This does not guarantee no doping but if there is any, it is minimal. There are certainly rational reasons for Vinny’s performance – here’s one: (I can’t post links, so look up the story called “the-debrief-analysing-that-tour-time-trial” on escapecollective dot com.)
    You do our beautiful sport a disservice by simply focussing on the scandal which to a large degree is a left-over dead-beat story from the past.

  • Very sensational headline with no proof whatsoever of any doping in the body of the article. Poor form Craig.

  • Nico Potgieter says:

    Missing the TDF already, cooking duty is not the same at 16h30 without ch 206 and tdf. Was fascinating duel, over on tuesday last week! See if this posts as my previous is gone 🤔

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