Tadej Pogacar kept his fire on the Galibier. He waited across the Croix de Fer. He felt good during the 60 mph descents after those brutal climbs. For more than four and a half hours, he made no move.
Instead, Pocagar, the two-time defending Tour de France champion, saved his bid to claim the yellow jersey for the end of Thursday’s 12th stage: the 21 hairpin turns of cycling’s most revered climb, to the top of the Alpe d’Huez.
His only problem was that race leader Jonas Vingegaard and his Jumbo-Visma team had other ideas.
First, Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert, wearing the green jersey of the best sprinter of the race, led the main pack at breakneck pace, making any potential attack difficult for Pogacar. Then, he took off, exhausted, and his partner Primoz Roglic took over. Then it was the turn of the American Sepp Kuss. Outnumbered and outnumbered, Pogacar could not act.
And when he finally charged, through the noise corridor that leads up the field to the mountaintop finish, Vingegaard, who had been protected all day by his teammates, matched his move. A second attack, just before the goal, quickly ended the same way.
In a final sprint of the last 100 metres, Pogacar managed to finish ahead of Vingegaard, but did not gain time. With the Alps portion of this year’s race complete, Vingegaard maintained his overall lead over Pogacar, a gap of 2min 22sec.
Alpe d’Huez is not the toughest or longest of bike climbs. But its picturesque curves and enthusiastic mania-bordering crowds hustling close to cyclists have made it the most famous. When the 2022 calendar was announced and it was shown that the mountain would return for the first time since 2018, and on Bastille Day no less, cycling fans immediately marked it on their calendars.
Climbing a steep eight and a half miles, the riders were surrounded by fans who had camped out in key positions for days. Wrapped in flags and dressed in cycling jerseys or even in costume, they shouted inches from the cyclists, creating a wall of noise and humanity unmatched in the sport.
At one point, a man in his underwear on a scorching hot day ran alongside top cyclists for 100 yards, a flare lit.
Slightly ahead of Pogacar and Vingegaard on Thursday, Great Britain’s Tom Pidcock, just 22 years old and riding his first Tour, became the youngest man to win atop Alpe d’Huez. His victory came after a long breakaway started by American Neilson Powless, who finished fourth on the day. But the battle that mattered for the overall Tour title was the Pogacar-Vingegaard duel that was running some three minutes behind.
In all, the riders covered 103 miles in just under five hours, most of it uphill. But it was the final climb that offered drama, but not a defining moment. And so, with the Pyrenees still to come, Vingegaard and his team took another giant step towards victory.