In the hotly anticipated mountain battle between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar on stage 14 of the 2023 Tour de France, the winner was a rider nobody expected: Carlos Rodríguez.
Dropped on the final climb of the Col de Joux Plane as overall first and second duelled for bonus seconds, the 22-year-old Spaniard caught up and pushed on alone on a fast and technical descent to claim a stage win in his debut Tour and a second victory in two days for Ineos Grenadiers.
After two weeks of racing this Tour remains a battle of seconds. Victory in Morzine catapulted Rodríguez into third on the GC by just one second from Jai Hindley.
After Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates wrestled for control of the stage, Jonas Vingegaard added one second to his lead over Tadej Pogačar in the fight for the overall Tour.
In truth, that one second only tells one half of the story. The stage saw a remarkable and intriguing duel between the two best GC riders in the world on the hot and sweaty ascent of the Col de Joux Plane.
Pogačar launched one of his signature attacks with 3.5km to the summit and opened up a gap as he had done on previous stages to Cauterets and the Puy de Dôme. However on this occasion, Vingegaard clawed his way back to his rival’s wheel and set up a track sprint for the bonus seconds on offer at the top of the climb.
That fight tells the story of a Tour contested by two riders so closely matched in ability that the bonus seconds offered by race organisers may ultimately prove the difference between failure and success.
One last push by Pogačar with 600m to the Joux Plane summit was curtailed by the presence of a press motorbike and that misfortune put the Slovenian off his stride. Vingegaard exploited his rival’s hesitation to nab the seconds for himself; Rodríguez exploited it to catch the leaders and push on to victory.
Pogačar downplayed the significance of the incident in his post-race interviews but time will tell just how important that may turn out to be. For now, it is yet another twist in this fascinating and potentially era-defining battle for the Tour.
HOW IT HAPPENED
The 2023 Tour’s first serious alpine stage was called to a halt after just 8km when a large crash on the greasy roads out of the Geneva suburbs brought down a swathe of the peloton and occupied the Tour’s medical staff.
Organisers neutralised the race for 20 minutes to allow for treatment of the riders; Esteban Chaves and Louis Meintjes were the two biggest name riders to abandon the race while a further blow was dealt to Chaves’ EF Education-EasyPost team when James Shaw crashed out along with Romain Bardet (DSM-Firmenich) not long after the race had resumed.
While one sole second might not have been the ultimate gain that they were hoping for, it was evident from the start of the stage that Jumbo-Visma had a clear plan for the day.
Such was their control over the peloton that attacks were never allowed more than a minute up the road. Even an 11-strong group containing some of the world’s best climbers – Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), Mikel Landa, Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious), Gorka Izagirre, Alex Aranburu (Movistar), Mike Woods, Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech), Giulio Ciccone (Lidl-Trek), Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Qazaqstan) – was caught on the penultimate climb of the Col de la Ramaz.
The Dutch squad then set about whittling down the remaining bunch. Tom Pidcock was the biggest victim of the sustained pressure; the Brit ceded 30 seconds to the GC group over the top of the Ramaz and never got back on, eventually finishing over eight minutes down on the stage and dropping from eighth to 11th overall.
Wout van Aert let rip on the approach to the Joux Plane but when Wilco Kelderman peeled off, it suddenly looked like UAE Team Emirates – who had been content to sit in the wheels all day – had the upper hand.
However a remarkable resurrection from near standstill saw Van Aert roar back to the front of the race, drop Majka with a brutal acceleration, and put the plan back on track.
Sepp Kuss led a select group of seven up the Joux Plane before Adam Yates set Pogačar up for his attack. A game of cat and mouse between first and second on the GC allowed Carlos Rodríguez the time to ride back up to the front of the race and the opportunity to spring a move of his own over the one last little uncategorised kicker before the descent down to the finish line in Morzine.
His gap of five seconds was small, but it was mighty enough to endure on the narrow and technical drop off the mountain side, particularly when Vingegaard and Pogačar only had eyes for each other.
Such skill and sang-froid suggests there is yet more to come from Rodríguez. With another high alpine stage tomorrow, there is definitely much more to come from this Tour.
TOUR DE FRANCE 2023, STAGE 14: ANNEMASSE > MORZINE LES PORTES DU SOLEIL, 151.8KM
1. Carlos Rodriguez (Spa) Ineos Grenadiers
2. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates at 5 seconds
3. Jonas Vingegaard (Den) Jumbo-Visma at same time
4. Adam Yates (GBr) UAE Team Emirates at 10 seconds
5. Sepp Kuss (USA) Jumbo-Visma at 57 seconds
6. Jai Hindley (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe at 1-46
7. Felix Gall (Aut) Ag2r-Citroen at same time
8. Pello Bilbao (Spa) Bahrain Victorious at 3-19
9. Simon Yates (GBr) Jayco-AlUla at 3-21
10. Guillaume Martin (Fra) Cofidis at 5-57
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 14
1. Jonas Vingegaard (Den) Jumbo-Visma in 57-47-28
2. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates at 10 seconds
3. Carlos Rodriguez (Spa) Ineos Grenadiers at 4-43
4. Jai Hindley (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe at 4-44
5. Adam Yates (GBr) UAE Team Emirates at 5-20
6. Sepp Kuss (USA) Jumbo-Visma at 8-15
7. Simon Yates (GBr) Jayco-AlUla at 8-32
8. Pello Bilbao (Spa) Bahrain Victorious at 8-51
9. Felix Gall (Aut) Ag2r-Citroen at 12-26
10. David Gaudu (Fra) Groupama-FDJ at 12-56