As the shock waves settled on former Tour de France leader Tadej Pogačar’s surprise defeat on the Col du Granon on Wednesday, from management to riders to Pogačar himself, UAE Team Emirates adamantly remained that the fight was far from over.
Surely very little, though, could have prepared Pogačar’s team for the dramatic events of five kilometers from the top of the Granon as Jonas Vingegaard sped away from the defending champion. Certainly there was no hint of any issues from the yellow jersey itself when the Tour favorites rattled past the long line of team buses parked up on the broad country road used by the race to get to the foot of the Granon and the day’s crunch climb.
Rather, albeit gesturing at the speed of the stage with one hand, Pogačar even gave the TV cameras a big smile as they headed towards the base of the climb. Everything, then, seemed to be in order for the stage to witness a further strengthening of his near-three year dominance in the Tour de France.
But as we all know, the Granon proved to be anything but business as usual for Pogačar. And less than an hour later, as riders and team officials began to pick their way back from the summit to the dozen or so team buses and the threat of thunderstorms darkened the sky, the atmosphere at the UAE Team Emirates bus and its small flotilla of support vehicles on one side of the country road remained, if not markedly gloomy, understandably flat.
Certainly, like the rest of the Tour, after Pogačar’s utterly surprising loss of the yellow jersey, UAE had a lot of food for thought. But even so, mechanics and team officials quietly and efficiently went about their usual post-stage business, albeit watched by a growing crowd of journalists and irritated police officers trying in vain to keep them off the road as team vehicles roared through. Meanwhile a small crowd of fans sat down in a long line, much to the police’s initial annoyance, in a large hayfield just above to watch events unfold below them.
Yet when team manager Mauro Gianetti stepped off the bus to talk to the media in a fluent series of English, French and Italian, no matter the language his message was clear: the events on Granon were an important defeat, but not a rout, and both Pogačar and the squad would be back in the game from stage 12 onwards.
“I think that, first of all, it’s a good day for cycling, because the riders put on a show today,” Gianetti said. “It shouldn’t be forgotten so quickly that Jumbo – and especially Vingegaard – put on an incredible exhibition. With a weakened team, we did what we could. At the start of the final climb we had Majka there with Tadej.
“But Tadej spent a lot of energy on the Galibier, maybe he was forced to do that too early and he paid for it four or five kilometers from the top of the final climb.
“He was fatigued. We saw that it was not the best Tadej at the end. But he was very good on the Galibier because what he did there was incredible.”
Pogačar’s ambition on the Galibier was clear, as he rode so hard that at one point only he and Vingegaard were out front alone. “He had to make decisions and he rode to eliminate some rivals,” was Gianetti’s explanation.
Yet despite Pogačar’s setback, Gianetti said, the team remained upbeat. The gap, of over two minutes on Vingegaard, was a large one, but not insurmountable. The race was still only halfway to Paris. The squad was already working on a strategy to fight back. As he put it “we know what we want to do.
“It’s a big gap, and you can see Vingegaard is very strong, with a strong team,” he pointed out. “But there’s still a week and a half of the Tour left, and we’ll take it day by day.”
Having lost two support riders, Stake Vegard Laengen and George Bennett, and with Majka also positive for COVID-19 but able to race on for now, there can be no doubt that UAE have a much harder task than they would like, with what Gianetti called a weakened team to take on Jumbo-Visma.
But if one of the key components in the fightback, Majka, went straight inside the bus for a welcome rest without talking to journalists, by the time Pogačar appeared half an hour later, he was at least willing to come out to give the Slovenian a big hug of support in front of the TV cameras. Again the same message: morale might have been dented at UAE, but it was by no means demolished.
Spanish teammate and climber Marc Soler neatly encapsulated a mood that moved from blankly neutral to a defiant determination to fight back even in the hour it took for Pogačar to ride down the climb and reach the bus. “Just as Jumbo managed to do what they did today, from here on we’re going to go on pushing hard,” he told a small group of reporters.
As Soler confirmed, up until the final climb it had been business as usual for the team, allowing the break to get a little bit of time to ensure that the time bonuses would not come into play.
“It all seemed to be going very well, at the top of the Galibier, Tadej went off with Vingegaard, and then it regrouped, but Majka was going very well too.
“Then we ended up missing out a bit…right at the end…it can happen to anybody, right?”
Pogačar had not, he said, told the team anything to make them worry that things might go badly during the day. “He was doing fine during the whole stage, maybe he forgot to eat a bit, it was really fast on the Galibier.
“But in any case I’m not worried, because he’s a great rider and there’s a long way to go in the Tour.”
When he finally arrived at the bus, Pogačar himself was equally adamant that his rough showing on the Granon was not an indication he was in a bad way form or health-wise. Simply that things had not gone to plan.
As he put it to journalists before stepping into a team car en route to the hotel, “it was a bad day. I felt good until the final climb. Anybody can have a bad day, no? And the Tour is far from over. “