HAUTACAM, France: After 18 stages of intense struggle, Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard put one hand on the 2022 Tour de France title on Thursday as defending champion and closest rival Tadej Pogacar wilted in the Pyrenees.
Vingegaard’s solo win on the Hautacam mountain extended his lead to a daunting 3 minutes and 26 seconds while his sportsmanship, when he waited for Pogacar to catch up after a high-speed downhill fall, served to burnish his reputation.
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 on Sunday to win the 2022 title.
“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 baking heat in the Alps.
“Jumbo-Visma have worked perfectly on this Tour de France. I take my hat off to them,” said Pogacar.
“And today, the best man won; Jonas was stronger than me.”
The race leader said this 18th stage and the 11th had been where he hammered home his superiority on the Tour.
“Those two displays on the Col du Granon and here showed what a great team we have,” Vingegaard said of Jumbo’s collective approach to this Tour.
Pogacar has relentlessly attacked the Dane since the Col du Granon in a stubborn effort to close the gap.
The loss of four of his UAE teammates to positive COVID tests and falls did however hurt those chances but whatever happens, the champion 2020 and 2021 will leave with his reputation entirely intact.
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.
“Having the world’s best all-round rider (van Aert) on the team has helped,” said Vingegaard who added he felt Pogacar’s UAE outfit had less depth.
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 honor, and with the wider public.
“He got a corner wrong, and fell in the gutter, of course I waited for him. I didn’t need to attack. It was in fact better for me to just go at a steady pace, even if I felt strong,” Vingegaard explained.
Ineos veteran Geraint Thomas is still third, eight minutes behind the leader but more than three minutes ahead of fourth-placed David Gaudu.
Vingegaard also climbed to the top of the King of the Mountains standings, while van Aert is assured of the sprint points green jersey if he makes it to the line in Paris.
Friday’s stage 19 runs through the isolated Tarn region and will likely end in a bunch sprint.
Saturday’s stage is the final battleground, a 41km individual time trial, leaving a glimmer of hope for Pogacar, who won the 2020 Tour with a last-gasp turnaround.
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