In the end, it was the Col de Granon which decided the 2022 Tour de France. The Alpine climb overlooking Briançon brought the momentary sight of the uncrackable Tadej Pogačar put to the sword by his main rival for the maillot jaune, Jonas Vingegaard.
It has been eight days since the Slovenian collapsed in the Alps, shedding almost three minutes to his Danish opponent. The Tour title, of course, wasn’t wrapped up for good then, just past the halfway point of the race.
However, as the stages passed and with them the numerous Pogačar attacks, it only looked more and more likely that the only-recently crowned king of the Tour would be dethroned two years into what some had predicted would be a dynasty to match – or exceed – those of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, and Froome.
That could still happen, of course, although his dominance of the race seems no longer assured, given the equally-rapid rise of Vingegaard at the past two editions.
Before Granon, Vingegaard looked like possibly the only man to challenge UAE Team Emirates’ Pogačar this summer. Since that fateful summit finish, Vingegaard himself has raced like a man with no equals.
Over the past week, Pogačar has tried countless times to reassert his status, jumping on the L’Alpe d’Huez and then trying a surprise move 10km into the stage to Mende before going to Vingegaard again on the steep finish above the town.
On the road to Foix, as his UAE Team Emirates squad seemed to disintegrate around him, he attacked on the Port de Lers, and then on Peyragudes he landed his only blow against Vingegaard, taking a four-second bonus after outsprinting his rival to the line at the Pyrenean ski resort.
A gap of what was still a mammoth 2:18 would need to be surmounted on stage 18 to Hautacam and in the 40.7km time trial still to come, a feat beyond the bewildering turnaround staged at La Planche des Belles Filles two years ago.
The western Pyrenean peak of Hautacam is a climb which has, more often than not, confirmed the winner of the Tour in which it has featured, rather than playing host to a race-changing turnaround. Since its introduction almost three decades ago, for the 1994 Tour, the mountain has seen Miguel Indurain (gained 2:19), Bjarne Riis (1:46), and Vincenzo Nibali (1:44) confirm their already-assumed status as Tour champions.
Despite the best efforts of Pogačar, that was the case once more on Thursday, with Vingegaard playing the role of consolidator.
His Slovenian rival did try, though, over and over again during a thrilling duel on the penultimate climb of the Col de Spandelles. It wasn’t quite 180km from the line as it was on stage 14, but Pogačar would launch his first blistering move when the GC group were still midway up the climb and 40km from the finish. Two kilometers later he went again, just as Geraint Thomas, Nairo Quintana, and David Gaudu had come back.
At 37km to go he went for a third time, with Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss joining the fray and then a confident Thomas riding straight past. Another kilometer, another attack, and Thomas dispatched again along with Kuss. Then, 33km out he tried one final time over the top.
Each time, Vingegaard was there, a yellow shadow who remained in the wheel on the descent. Pogačar didn’t try to force the issue there, as he had on the Port de Lers – he later admitted downhills aren’t his “favourite terrain to force a decision”.
By the end of the descent, though, both men will have been thankful to be racing or, or at least not minutes down, injured. Both suffered scares which could’ve severely dented, or even ended, their quests for yellow, with Vingegaard dropping his chain and almost losing control early on in the descent, while moments later Pogačar misjudged a bend and slid out in the gravel before Vingegaard sat up to wait.
Hostilities were put on hold as the pair slowed up rather than risk any more potentially race-ending calamities, letting Kuss, Thomas, Tiesj Benoot, Hugo Houle, and Louis Meintjes back at the bottom.
The final mountain of the Tour
Once the group hit the day’s final test, there was a further lull in the attacks as first Benoot, then Kuss, controlled the pace for Vingegaard. The kilometers ticked down and the riders fell away until the 5km to go banner, where Wout van Aert – who had been out front all day – dropped back to continue the Jumbo-Visma assistance as Kuss dropped away.
Like the race over the Galibier and Granon, the stage played out as a masterpiece in teamwork for the Dutch squad, who this time had riders in all the right places to match, resist, and, finally, break Pogačar.
For Pogačar, the stage played out in a similar manner to Foix, where he had tried multiple times on the Port de Lers before, seemingly exhausted, he sat behind Jumbo-Visma over the day’s final climb.
On stage 16 he had rolled in alongside Vingegaard, but on Hautacam it was a different story as Van Aert, the man who has conquered cyclo-cross, sprinting, the Ventoux, and the Classics, added his strokes to the Jumbo-Visma “masterpiece “.
Riding at his limit, he pushed beyond Pogačar’s, a stint of 900 meters in service of Vingegaard which brought an end to any realistic challenge to the yellow jersey.
All that was left was for Vingegaard to launch, which he did for the second time in the race after another 700 meters of Van Aert pulling and with Pogačar already 15 seconds down the road.
With the final 3.7km of racing came Vingegaard’s stamp of authority on the race, with each stretch of road seeing the live timing confirm his mastery of the climb, and of the overall rankings.
Crossing the line with a further 1:04 in hand over Pogačar, the 25-year-old is now secure in the lead with 3:26 in hand, a surely insurmountable obstacle in the final time trial. It took something special to beat Tadej Pogačar, and on the Granon and Hautacam, Vingegaard brought it.
Behind the lead pairing – far behind – there was some reshuffling among the riders in the top 10, few of whom had ever been considered major rivals for Pogačar and Jumbo-Visma when the Tour kicked off all that time ago in Copenhagen.
As Vingegaard and Pogačar have stuck to their placings since the Alps, so too has 2018 champion Geraint Thomas. The Welshman, who had risen to the top of the Ineos Grenadiers co-leader ranking with the illnesses of Dani Martínez and Adam Yates, has steadily been the ‘best of the rest’ behind the top two since L’Alpe d’Huez.
That didn’t change on Hautacam, either, as Thomas looked at times like the only man capable of hanging with them aside from Jumbo-Visma’s cadre of super-domestiques. Earlier in the Tour he admitted he couldn’t follow the explosive attacks, and that showed on the Spandelles, but he steadily fought back several times and even put in a dig of his own at one point.
He was forced to let go of the battle for yellow at 8km from the top of Hautacam and would eventually finish his race 2:54 down after being forced into a bike change 4km out. He crossed the line just ahead of Groupama-FDJ leader David Gaudu.
The Frenchman, for all his best efforts, isn’t one capable of closing a 3:05 gap in a time trial, though, never mind on a time triallist as accomplished as Thomas. Like Thomas, he has steadily lost time on those above him as the Tour has progressed despite looking a possible podium contender just before the Alps.
Gaudu can thank Laurent Madouas for a long stint on the front up the final climb, driving home his advantage over the fading Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), who he has now leapfrogged to grab fourth overall.
The Colombian, meanwhile, faces a time trial battle against the resurgent Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux), who has parlayed three days in the breakaway – at L’Alpe d’Huez, Mende, and here – into a sixth place few would have predicted before the Tour.
Further back, behind Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has steadily risen into the top 10, it was a day to forget for Team DSM leader Romain Bardet, who finished in 17th place, 6:40 down on Vingegaard. At one point he looked a podium contender, as he did at the Giro d’Italia in May, but a good day in Peyragudes has been sandwiched by two off-days, and a fringe top 10 placing is set to be the latest entry in his Tour palmarès.
There are some minor placings to work out then, but the Tour’s final day in the mountains decided an awful lot. Barring some spectacular misfortune – whether that comes in the form of crashes, illness, or COVID-19 positives – the races for all four jerseys and the podium now look decided.