Wout van Aert was in the mixed zone atop Luz Ardiden discussing his prospects for the final time trial of the Tour de France when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Jonas Vingegaard wanted to express his thanks for the work done, and the Belgian champion's interview was interrupted by an embrace.
Jumbo-Vismas' Tour was an ill-starred one from the outset when the bulk of the team went down in a crash on the opening stage, but they have responded with stage victories through Van Aert and Sepp Kuss, and, it seems, a place on the final podium in Paris through the surprising Vingegaard.
"It's his first Tour de France, and I remember from my first Tour two years ago how overwhelming everything is, and I was not even in GC," Van Aert said admiringly. "So it's special to see how he handles the pressure, it's really deserved."
At Luz Ardiden on stage 18 as on the Col du Portet 24 hours earlier, Vingegaard was unable to match yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar's final acceleration near the summit, but he still had the wherewithal to come across the line in second place. Two days from Paris, he remains second overall, 5:45 behind Pogačar and 6 seconds up on Richard Carapaz (Ineos). By any metric, he has proved a most remarkable understudy for Primož Roglič, who was forced out by injury on stage 9.
Vingegaard has raced with a certain fearlessness on this Tour ever since he briefly distanced Pogačar with a ferocious stint of forcing atop Mont Ventoux on stage 12. He tested Pogačar with a brace of accelerations on the Col de Beixalis three days later, and he was the only rider who deigned to swap turns with the yellow jersey once he began his onslaught on the Portet on stage 17. By his own admission, his second place at Luz Ardiden was harder earned.
"I didn't have my best day today, I was really suffering a lot so I'm actually very super happy and pleased about my second place," said Vingegaard. "It's also in the third week and I guess nobody is feeling super great anymore. I just had to suffer a bit and I'm just super, super happy about it. And I mean, second in GC is just amazing after the last mountain stage. Now I have to survive tomorrow and hopefully I can do a good time trial and then we'll see."
Vingegaard was one of just four riders who could match Pogačar's rasping acceleration with a shade over 3km remaining, and his teammate Sepp Kuss later took up the reins as the five-man group drew nearer to the mist-shrouded summit. Enric Mas (Movistar) made a brace of accelerations in the final kilometre before Pogačar unleashed his final and decisive onslaught. Vingegaard couldn't follow, but he was able to match Carapaz and then outkick him to second place on the stage, two seconds down on the yellow jersey.
"I could follow him and I was happy that I could. I didn't have my best day today and I was doubting myself a bit," said Vingegaard, who is effectively guaranteed a podium spot in his debut Tour, given that he is 2:33 clear of fourth-placed Ben O'Connor (AG2R-Citroën).
On the evidence of their displays in the opening week time trial in Laval, Vingegaard will perhaps expect to fend off Carapaz in Saturday's test to Saint-Émilion and thus retain the second step of the podium in Paris. "It has been a big, big learning process for me," said Vingegaard. "Now I'll try to keep my second place."
Van Aert, meanwhile, evinced some regrets about the way Jumbo-Visma's race had unfolded. The team dominated last year's Tour only for Roglič to lose yellow in the most surprising of circumstances to Pogačar on the penultimate day. This time out, their leader's race was ruined by a crash on stage 3, and only four of their number remained in the Tour after Steven Kruijswijk's abandon on Wednesday.
"We're down to four riders but until 5k to go today, we were with 75%of the team in the first group so I think we did well. We hoped to go for the stage today but in the end, Jonas was beaten by Pogačar, who was probably stronger," said Van Aert.
"Imagine being here with a full squad, without the bad luck and with Primož. We were really ready for the war…"
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