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Boring, or beautiful? Necessary, or foolish?
Jonas Vingegaard took a pause, peering over his shoulder at the white jersey on the ground, his front wheel washed out in a patch of gravel, bloody thigh peeking through his shorts. He sat up in the saddle and eased off the pedals, coasting down the Col de Spandelles. He took a breath, shook his head, and waited.
Waiting in the Tour de France?
It’s certainly not the first time. But whenever it happens, the same debate ignites: is this what we want from our champions? To hold hands on the hardest stage of the grandest race all year? Do we want killers or brothers? Sportsmanship or victory?
Context is always important. So are details. The crash in question came on a descent. Tadej Pogačar entered a left-hand bend on the wrong line with too much speed, hit the apex early, and shot off to the right side. He kept it upright until the exit, where a patch of gravel sent his front wheel skittering to the right and he dropped hard onto his left thigh.
Pogačar was leading at the time, attempting to drop Vingegaard or force some sort of error. In fact, he had nearly done so just moments earlier, as Vingegaard was forced to stick a foot out to make it around a corner.
The race was on. Pogačar was the instigator, and he paid a price for his aggressiveness. Vingegaard watched the incident happen.
The unwritten rules of the sport, as loose as they often are, dictate that Vingegaard was under no real obligation to slow down. He could have put his head down, called Wout van Aert back from the break, and powered across the five-kilometre valley to the Hautacam as Pogačar chased alone.
And yet, he did not.
If the question is one of balancing sportsmanship and victory, the premise itself is false. Vingegaard, purposefully or not, did both.
“I don’t think I needed to attack,” he said. “I think it was better for me to hold a steady pace.”
He had Wout van Aert up the road and Sepp Kuss closing quickly behind. He had already almost crashed; a chain issue led to a rear wheel skid, he said in his press conference, and had little interest or inspiration to take any further risks.
There is no clearer way to signal confidence and strength than to calmly hand back an earned gap to your closest rival.
Neither Vingegaard or Pogačar seem to contain the characteristics of many of cycling’s more controversial past champions. There is a quietness to both of them, a sense that they find themselves here not quite accidentally but with a gratefulness and lack of ego that is rare at this level. There are few instances of ruthlessness, more placid press conferences, hugs at the finish line and handshakes after crashes.
They are, dare I say it, nice?
They are also proof that a more quiet leadership can be as effective as leadership through fear. They are not patrons in the Hinault or Armstrong models.
There will always be a sort of faux ethical debate when these things happen, arguing over whether we want to see killers or brothers fighting on the Tour’s slopes, but the answer to that question inevitably ends up saying more about us than it says about the riders in question.
It wasn’t a mechanical, it was an error. It was the fair thing to do. They race down as well as up. Waiting was right. He was going to win anyway. Et cetera.
We lay our own Tour desires upon them, preferences for a cutthroat battle or for human inspiration, or something in between. The riders simply react. And that’s why these are the moments, unplanned and instinctual, that begin to define an athlete in the eyes of all of us. They offer glimpses into character and drive. Only when under maximum stress do we truly see the sport through their eyes.