Wout van Aert has ridden this Tour de France with scant consideration for preserving energy, and he continued in the same vein on the road to Hautacam on stage 18, attacking at the very moment the peloton hit kilometer zero just outside Lourdes. Another day, another outlandish feat of strength.
A little under four hours later, Van Aert was still at the front. He led the remnants of the day’s breakaway over the Col des Spandelles and onto the lower slopes of the final haul to Hautacam, where, remarkably, he dropped Thibaut Pinot with a rasping acceleration.
An even more incongruous moment was to follow on the upper ramps of the climb, when maillot jaune Jonas Vingegaard bridged across in the company of their Jumbo-Visma teammate Sepp Kuss and his closest challenger Tadej Pogačar. Kuss soon swung off, his work done, and then Van Aert took over.
After a day on the attack and an entire Tour spent toggling between contesting sprints and attacking from the gun, one might have anticipated little more than a symbolic show of support from Van Aert. Instead, Van Aert produced the mile or so of mountain pace-making that effectively sealed the Tour for Vingegaard.
4.4km from the summit, Pogačar finally realized he could go no further. The man who has won the past two Tours de France was somehow dropped on an hors categorie climb by a rider who has won two bunch sprints on this one.
Van Aert persisted for another 500m or so, pulling Vingegaard ever further clear of Pogačar, before he eventually relented. Pogačar would come past him again a little further up the climb, but even a soft-pedalling Van Aert was fresh enough to stay clear of the rest. The green jersey of the Tour punched the air as he came home third on the stage, 2:10 down on Vingegaard.
“We wanted to take time and we succeeded. I am also surprised that it went so smoothly. In the end, I was able to pull myself completely apart for Jonas,” Van Aert said in the mixed zone afterwards.
On Wednesday, Van Aert had mathematically sealed victory in the classification points and Vingegaard, who now has a lead of 3:26 over Pogačar, has more or less done likewise in the general classification. On Sunday, Jumbo-Visma will become the first team to ride into Paris with the yellow and green jerseys since Telekom did so with Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel in 1997. For good measure, Vingegaard’s victory atop Hautacam has also given him the polka dot jersey .
“It was really a crazy day for me. I know that I can be very strong on one day in the mountains when I concentrate on that,” said Van Aert, who was dispatched to police the day’s early break in the company of Tiesj Benoot .
As on Tuesday’s run to Foix, his task was to wait in front for Vingegaard to join him in the finale. Repeating that strategy, he suggested, was a direct response to UAE Team Emirates’ offensive on stage 17, where Pogačar and Brandon McNulty had outnumbered Vingegaard on the final climb to Peyragudes.
“After yesterday, it was good to realize that UAE were still there with a big objective,” Van Aert said. “For me, that was the signal to go full-on today. I said to the team, ‘It’s one more day, it’s possible to do something together because we have six strong guys.’ And with me and Tiesj in the break, it was ideal.”
Kuss with the assist
While Van Aert and Benoot acted as satellites out in front, Sepp Kuss was serving as Vingegaard’s shepherd in the group behind. The flock was scattered on the Col des Spandelles, however, when Pogačar threw himself onto the offensive no fewer than four times. Vingegaard tracked Pogačar immediately on each occasion, while Kuss bridged across three times. On the fourth, even the American had to relent, although he was back by the yellow jersey’s side by the time they reached Argelès-Gazost at the foot of Hautacam.
“I couldn’t respond to the last attack from Pogačar over the penultimate climb, even though I felt good,” Kuss told reporters when he had descended back to Argelès-Gazost after the finish.
“It was a really fast pace all day, both uphill and downhill, but it all exploded on the second to last climb. Luckily, I was able to make it back with the help of Tiesj, who was in the break. Then on the last climb, I tried to pull for as long as possible. And we knew we had Wout up ahead, and we knew he could help Jonas a lot.”
Kuss could hardly have anticipated that Van Aert would deliver the decisive blow quite as he did further up the climb, but the American played his own part in the softening up process, setting a brisk pace on the lower slopes of Hautacam, a winnowing process that left only Vingegaard and Pogačar on his wheel with 8km of the climb remaining.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos) was the last to relent, and although the Welshman has pieced together arguably the best athletic performance of his Grand Tour career these past three weeks, he would still concede almost three minutes to Vingegaard by the summit. It was a rout.
After Kuss dropped Vingegaard off in Van Aert’s care, he followed the final kilometers via the crackles from his radio earpiece. Pogačar was perhaps limited by his crash on the descent of the Spandelles, but Vingegaard’s superiority throughout this Tour has brooked no argument. It has been a dizzying four-year journey from the floor of a fish factory to the top of the podium on the Champs-Élysées.
“If you asked me a few years ago if he could win the Tour, I would have said I didn’t know,” Kuss said. “Jonas is super talented and it’s incredible to see his progression over the years. It’s mostly been from a mental standpoint, because he’s matured a lot in that role with his confidence, he’s become one of the best riders in the world.”
Vingegaard’s quiet confidence has been a keynote of his time in yellow and, after nullifying Pogačar’s attacks over the past week or so, he approached Hautacam with designs on doing more than following. In the final reckoning, it was Pogačar who could hold on no longer.
“Maybe after his crash, he was a bit sore, but even before the start it was our plan to try to win the stage with Jonas,” Van Aert said. “Today, the climbs were longer and steeper. I think today was better for Jonas than yesterday – and it went better.”