13th July 2022: the 108th Tour de France, Stage 11
It was the race we all deserved.
Stage 11 of the Tour de France 2022 will go down in cycling history as the day we celebrated the attacking spirit of this unique generation of talent; a day of pure, undiluted joy at the spectacle of this incredible sport.
Some will talk about this with their friends over a beer in a bar, others will be inspired to jump on their bikes and go on their own rides, such was the soul-inspiring spectacle we were treated to from Albertville to Col du Granon. The way I express myself is through words though, so here is a record, not just of the facts, not just of the key moments, but the emotional, fragmented, incomplete reactions of the day my brain was able to process.
If I was more eloquent, it would be a poem. What it really warrants is a novel. But here, it will be recorded as simply one of the greatest stories in modern cycling history.
Before the storm, the calm. Rolling out of Albertville, the peloton all smiles despite the gathering heat; icepacks removed from jerseys before they set to work for the first of two back-to-back days of gruelling endurance. For some, it would come to define the race and their part in it. For others, it was simply about survival.
Chapter 1 – The Boys are Back
It began with a couple of legends, and a simple two-man break.
What has undoubtedly been missing from this year’s Tour is a good old fashioned, full-blooded, balls-to-the-wall Wout van Aert v Mathieu van der Poel battle.
The imperious rivals obviously agreed, as they clamoured behind the commissaire’s car waiting for the yellow flag to drop so they could get down to business. Today would be the day.
Prudhomme duly waved the flag and the pair got straight to work, and cycling fandom worldwide collectively fainted.
What is it about these two riding together, whether against one another or in partnership, in early breakaways such as this, that stokes the fire of our imaginations? They are just two proper bike racers. The best in their generation at a certain kind of racing (and pretty darn good at most other kinds too) and so evenly matched, they just can’t shake one another.
They rode alone for just over 30km before a group of 18 made it across to swell the breakaway ranks to 20. A more serious prospect for long-term survival, and perhaps a stage winner among them.
Chapter 2 – A Pretty Distraction
The wiggly switchbacks of the Lacets de Montvernier were cute, weren’t they? I mean, I’m not for a moment suggesting I could ride up them – I’d literally get off my bike and have a sandwich before even reaching the second hairpin, but these guys ate them for breakfast. ‘Mini Alpe d’Huez’ brought the drop-dead gorgeous looks to the early part of the stage, as the aperitif for a three-course menu of climbing already began to make a difference to some.
The first casualty was Van der Poel, as the early escape routine with Van Aert took its toll. He would later abandon the race altogether, leaving us to wonder if the breakaway with Wout was simply just one last bit of fun, before he succumbed to the inevitable, and admitted he wasn’t able to stay the course. A test, perhaps – checking in with his body to see if there was anything left there to draw on, before he apparently decided there was not.
If the Lacets de Montvernier was the aperitif, a pretty distraction, the Col du Télégraphe was the starter. A mere category 1 climb, it wasn’t here where the majority of the day’s ascending would take place, and yet if you were to start this story on the Galibier, you’d already have missed the first key movements of the day.
As the breakaway approached the top of the climb, and the sprinters were shelled out the back, Tiesj Benoot and Primož Roglič slid out from the UAE slipstream and struck the first blow in what – spoiler alert – would be the most aggressive, breath-taking day of racing in recent memory.
After ceding control to UAE for a while, Jumbo Visma took matters into their own hands once again, Benoot dictating the pace, pushing on, and as they crested the Télégraphe, Roglič attacked once more, bridging to Christophe Laporte who had been in the day’s early break. A cunning plan, and one, we would later discover, that had been months in the making.
Chapter 3 – The Selection
The pinch point of the day is the short, soul-destroying descent that leads straight into the climb of the Col du Galibier. An unforgiving plateau that doesn’t offer enough relief before the HC test ahead, yet the group that breaks away speeds towards the real climb as if they can’t wait to face the challenge.
The selection has been made: Vingegaard, Roglič, Pogačar, Thomas. With so much of the day’s work still to do this small, elite group extricates itself and despite the shallow gradients, the Jumbo Visma pair go straight to work. Vingegaard and Roglič take turns to dig, and Pogačar himself kicks on in defiance, rising to the bait dangled out for him by the Dutch team. The three continue to take chunks out of each other, passing by riders from the early break as they fly through like a freight train. There’s even a moment where Vingegaard and Pogačar look at each other like they’re gearing up for a sprint finish. There’s still 58km to go. It’s all Thomas can do to hang on and hope he is there for the later stages.
The attacks continue to come – it’s gripping stuff, truly electrifying racing. I’m shaking, honestly – adrenaline coursing through me, as I fail to believe what I’m seeing.
Back in the main peloton, Marc Soler sets off in pursuit of his team leader, and it doesn’t take him long to catch onto the group and lend support to Pogačar Meanwhile, up the road, Wout van Aert is busy tempo-ing up the climb in the style of his effort up Mont Ventoux last year, his presence as much a threat to his rivals as it is a comfort to his team.
Chapter 4 – The Business End
There’s still a peloton of GC favourites and their domestiques on the climb, however easy it is to forget in the ensuing chaos. Kuss and Kruijswijk, backstops for the marauding pair of Roglič and Vingegaard, David Gaudu, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and more. They’re determined to feature in the day, to rise above the realms of mere side characters.
For a while, there’s a stalemate, as the aggressors gather themselves for the stiffer challenge of the upper slopes of the Galibier. At the head of the race, French favourite Warren Barguil attacks the business end of the climb, striking out in search of victory.
Jumbo Visma have five riders for a while, with Bardet and Quintana along for the ride. It’s Pogačar who decides it’s time to up the pace and only Vingegaard can go with him – the two protagonists isolated and hovering on the precipice of uncertainty over who would be next to attack.
Barguil crests the climb amid a sea of baying fans ahead of polka dot Geschke. Shortly after, Van Aert tops out and seems to slow. Bradley Wiggins suggests he stops for a comfort break. Either way, he’s waiting. But it’s not for Jonas.
Chapter 5 – Descent into chaos
Bardet passes the leading pair over the summit and with a descent ahead of him, the thought occurs that perhaps it could be his day. Wout Van Aert rides with Vingegaard for a while before dropping further back and actually stopping at the side of the road – he had been called back to pick up Roglič. Many questioned the logic but it seemed clear – it’s a three week race. All hands will be needed on the metaphorical deck, going forward.
Many improbable things happened on stage 11, but one of the funniest was the sight of Van Aert at the head of a line of riders, including three from Groupama-FDJ, Roglič and Tom Pidcock, steaming past the yellow jersey group as Van Aert brought them all back together.
Jumbo Visma might have preferred he didn’t bring along Rafal Majka for the ride.
Chapter 6 – Where Yellow Jerseys are conquered
The climb of the Col du Granon has not been used in the Tour since 1986. That year, Greg LeMond ousted his own team mate Bernard Hinault from the yellow jersey and went on to win, in a year of questionable tactics and self-interest disguised as team work.
Today, Jumbo Visma cannot be accused of anything like this. They are pulling off the plan of the century, a heist of truly remarkable proportions.
There’s a sting in the tail, from the young Slovenian, there must be? He smiles at the camera, gestures and we all fold our arms and nod sagely – this is not over. Not by a long chalk.
Wout Van Aert leads the train of GC riders to the foot of the Col du Granon before signing off for the day, his job as super domestique well and truly complete, and Roglič leads the charge up the lower slopes of the climb, in what will be his final contribution of the day. He slips back and Majka takes up the pace-setting, the Polish domestique asserting himself at the front of the bunch, steadying the tempestuous ship of Pogačar’s yellow jersey campaign for a while.
Up ahead, Barguil grimaces as his team mate Nairo Quintana leaves the GC group and strikes out in pursuit. Honourable mentions for the sterling efforts of Dylan Teuns, Pierre Latour and Simon Geschke, but they slip back and for a while Arkea-Samsic are in places 1 and 2 on the road.
The yellow jersey group remains steady – six riders, two each from UAE and Ineos Grenadiers, along with Vingegaard and Bardet grind their way up gradients of 10 and 11%, each waiting for the moment one of the protagonists breaks ranks. My heart still races – it’s a hardly an entente cordiale – there is plenty of fight left in this one.
Barguil cracks and Quintana takes the lead and back in the GC group it’s Romain Bardet who’s first to go, taking up the baton of French hopes with 4.8km of climbing to the summit, and he gets a gap, but 200m later the moment comes – Vingegaard puts in a vicious kick and distances the rest almost instantly. He reaches Bardet, passes him, opens out a gap of 10 seconds, 15, and Pogačar can’t respond! He’s done, at least temporarily. Moments later, Geraint Thomas too passes the yellow jersey. It’s surreal. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Vingegaard is on the day of his life. He bares his teeth, driving past Quintana, pushing on for the summit, putting time into Pogačar with every pedal stroke, narrowly avoiding a spectator with a flag who is perilously close to unseating him – hearts stop, and start again.
2km from the summit he blinks hard, pain etched across his face, not giving up a second of the precious time he’s accruing with every metre of altitude he gains.
Time stretches out. The gradient is cruel, and the more time passes, the worse it gets for Pogačar. The yellow jersey, isolated and alone on the Col du Granon, cutting a melancholy figure as he drives his spent body up the climb, watching riders pass him by one by one – after Thomas there’s Gaudu, then Yates.
Vingegaard crosses the line and wobbles as he punches the air, being careful to retain his other handlebar. He has poured everything he has into this day, and it will be one to savour, later, when he recovers. He collapses over his handlebars, nothing left to give.
Later, in his interview he breaks off to hug Wout Van Aert, swearing in disbelief. It’s a dream. Perhaps redemption, for a team who have suffered in their attempts to win this race over the past few seasons. It’s far from over. But they will always have today.
The adrenaline buzz from the day lasted long into the evening. I watched the highlights show on ITV4 – they are the masters of putting together a narrative in just 45 minutes or so, but even they were unable to fully represent the events of the day in a holistic way.
I watched again and felt an unexpected pang.
It’s a bittersweet sensation, watching someone you believed to be infallible, crack before your eyes. Daniel Friebe wrote on Twitter that he felt sad and in spite of everything, I understood that feeling. Perhaps not sadness, but a shock to the system.
The stage was so momentous, not just for this year’s race, but for the wider connotations. It represents a reframing of our cycling reality; the myth of Pogacar’s invincibility that cast a tufted shadow over the next few years has been irrevocably destroyed. Whatever he goes on to do, the memory of this stage, his capitulation in yellow, will remain as a reminder to all who might challenge him that he is human, he is beatable.
It may be a temporary lapse; a blip which he will overcome, perhaps even today, on Alpe d’Huez, but it will always have happened. An inedible wound to his pride and to our perhaps unrealistic expectations of his superhuman abilities on a bike.
He showed true character after the stage, congratulating Vingegaard, smiling as he collected his white jersey on the podium – the one he will now wear. He complimented his rivals and smiled as he considered the days ahead.
It’s far from over. What he does next will define him – as a competitor, as a sporting legend. He will have his day – perhaps not today, on another long, arduous day in the Alps, but with the shorter, sharper climbs of the Pyrenees lying in wait followed by a long final time trial, there are plenty of chances for Pogačar to have his revenge.
From a Jumbo Visma perspective, the joy gave way to apprehension. Stage 11 felt like a kind of healing from the shock and awe of La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020, when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. But the redemption is not complete until the team ride down the Champs-Élysées with the maillot jaune among their ranks.
We are only halfway through the race.
But what a race. This is bike racing, folks. And it’s bloody brilliant. Win or lose, you have to hand it to Jumbo Visma – they have brought everything to this Tour de France and made sure it’s one we’ll never forget. All in, full gas, full-blooded racing, no holds barred, all hyperboles employed at all times. They are an antidote to the past decade of controlled racing, simultaneously a throwback to the racing of the past and something that we’ve never seen before. A Team.