Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
There was no answer from rivals to Tadej Pogačar’s pace as Paris-Nice hit the hills
“Well, Jumbo-Visma have some work to do,” they kept saying — as if it was any comfort — in the vehicles descending from the stage finish at the wintry, wooded summit of La Loge des Gardes, in central France. After Jonas Vingegaard’s reality check on the testing fourth stage, that much is certainly true, but then Vingegaard is not alone. Plenty of others also have work to do if they are to stop UAE’s Tadej Pogačar from winning the 2023 Paris-Nice on the Promenade des Anglais on Sunday — and then continuing that winning streak on, through the spring and into the summer.
It was impossible not to see this stage of Paris-Nice as a foretaste of what is to come. Pogačar (pictured winning last year’s Tour de France stage at Peyragudes ahead of the Vingegaard) mastered the peloton yet again with an attack on the final climb that only Vingegaard could follow, before eventually the Dane was forced to throw in the towel as the Slovenian bridged to Groupama’s David Gaudu and moved further clear.
But there was also a greater tactical astuteness from Pogačar. Vingegaard, despite lacking teammates, was first to attack from the lead group. The UAE leader stayed with him and contained his move, refusing to share the work. So, when Gaudu counter-attacked, it was only Pogačar who could follow, as Vingegaard appeared to have over-estimated his powers.
If Pogačar does win in Nice, what will that do to the morale, not only of Vingegaard, but his other rivals, who in just a handful of race days, have been serially humiliated by the prodigious Slovenian? But let’s not throw things too far forward just yet — even if most onlookers rightfully saw the echoes of the Pogačar of July 2019 and 2020, rather than of 2022, in the double Tour champion’s coruscating accelerations on the first summit finish of the Race to the Sun.
It is only March, of course, but the Slovenian’s speed came too early in the year for most, including defending Tour champion Vingegaard, who appeared a spent force as he crossed the finish line shortly after giving up on the pursuit of his rival. The Dane seems a long way from the composed form that secured him a hero’s welcome in Denmark last summer.
On the gloomy, chilly and remote climb — making a debut in ASO races but likely to appear again — there were other revelations though, beyond the Pogačar—Vingegaard axis. Gaudu fulfilled the potential of recent years, sparring with the Slovenian into the final 50 metres, until he gave second best to stage winner. Gino Mäder also maintained his progression, while another French revelation, Kevin Vauquelin, partnered the reliable Aurélien Paret-Peintre into the top five.
Meanwhile, Vingegaard slipped down the general classification to third. He and his team looked uncharacteristically underpowered, with no other rider finishing in the top 20.
Others will also be disappointed. Neilson Powless, Dani Martínez, and Max Schachmann all faded and now look cut adrift of hopes of a podium finish. Yes, there are two big climbing stages to come on Saturday and Sunday, but unless they can pull off a remarkable coup, their chances look slim. Now just four riders are within a minute of Pogacar and the Paris-Nice convoy hasn’t even reached the Rhône valley. Based on the experience of recent seasons, this usually leads to one inevitable outcome.
So are his rivals demoralised? Psyched out? Whatever, now they have to go again, even if the double Tour winner and his team already have the upper hand. The two next major rendezvous, the Col de la Couillole finish on Saturday and the five climbs of Sunday’s closing stage, in the hinterlands of Nice, offer two scenarios: a chance for them to regain lost ground or for Pogačar to further hammer home his advantage. No prizes for guessing which option we consider more likely.