clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Suspicious Minds? Not If You Keep Digging For Answers

Vingegaard’s time trial was one for the ages, but it’s not fair to call it “otherworldly”

110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 16 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

I was a bit taken aback Tuesday after Jonas Vingegaard extended his slim lead from 10 seconds over Tadej Pogačar to a healthy 1.48 in a time trial performance that will go down in race lore. It didn’t take long for the tone of the race to shift from “what a great duel we have!” to... well, not many people were willing to label the Dane an outright cheater, but they were sure trying to hint at it.

This is the worst of it, given that L’Equipe is the journalistic culture-setter at the Tour, and IIRC they may have won some plaudits (belatedly) for putting Lance Armstrong on the hot seat immediately after his seventh Tour win in 2005 with its first serious doping exposé regarding the Texan. It’s old hat that in cycling “extraterrestrial” is a dogwhistle word for doper. Saying Vingegaard is “from another planet” is not cheeky — it’s an outright accusation.

Another person from that era decided to fan the flames a bit:

I’ll give Kimmage credit — he worked the hardest and suffered the most among journalists for his efforts to blow the whistle on the ugly Armstrong Era. He also has held back a bit, only retweeting this and a story from a Ouest-France reporter named Gaspard Bremond who posted a story in his regional paper full of disbelieving quotes from riders aghast at how much they lost to Vingegaard by.

The article itself, written with some fair caveats, contains several quotes from anonymous riders expressing their suspicions that Vingegaard’s performance can’t be explained by acceptable advantages. That’s their opinion, at least. But it’s put forth as “insiders say!” Only... is this true? Do riders know everything there is to know when it comes to the so-called marginal gains? My French isn’t good enough, and the paywall in front of this article, is too good for me to tell whether some of the riders are casting aspersions and the rest are actually OK with it. It’s not that hard to find a handful of complainers in a large enough crowd of individuals. There are always a few shit-talkers around.

Against my better judgment — knowing I could wake up tomorrow to blaring headlines about abnormalities in the blood samples the UCI collected Tuesday — I am going to parse out legitimate suspicions from what we have seen over the last 48 hours. Spoiler, there aren’t a lot of legitimate suspicions.

Let’s start on the narrative level. Probably everyone even so much as glancing at this post understands that we all have a certain license to suspect cycling for not having ever fully cleaned up its act. PTSD may not be the best filter for examining the present, but it doesn’t make the past scars any less real. If people don’t want to believe, strictly on the basis of lack of belief, then by all means, go ahead. I get it. What I have trouble with is the following:

  • Asserting that the present is stained because the past was. It’s one thing to worry that the sins of the father will be passed on to the son, but something else to assert that this has actually happened, based on pure conjecture, because... “that’s how it always works,” or something. Again, I get the temptation to feel that way, but at this point there are few if any active riders who literally deserve to be tarred with the early Aughts generation and their nefarious ways. Give me something more before you tear down all they’ve worked on.
110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 14 Photo by Bernard Papon - Pool/Getty Images
  • The main argument is that Vingegaard went much faster than everyone else, which of course he did. The implication is that Jonas — and nobody else — took some shortcut to success. This accusation gets played every year at the Tour when someone goes better than expected, but it fails the logical test unless you think he did something overnight. Because the days leading up to the time trial, Pogačar was on the attack and in some cases took time from Vingegaard. These instances involved both riders pushing themselves to the very limit, and as of Sunday night, the universal conclusion was that the pair were on the same level as each other, and beyond everyone else. So is Pogačar doping too? You cannot match a comparable doper to a non-doper on a Tour de France Alps stage and have them side by side like that. If we learned nothing else from the dark ages, We at least figured out that the people who finished along with the very best dopers were also dopers. Everyone on UAE and Jumbo got blood tested on the rest day, so there should be nowhere to hide here.
  • The other narrative point is that Vingegaard must have cheated because his advantage is unprecedented. Except it really isn’t. Yes, it’s rare for the #2 rider to get blown out on a time trial by the #1 guy, but we have seen it before. Want to skip over the doping years, roughly 1992-2006? OK. In 1985, Eric Vanderaerden won a 31km time trial by 1.07 over Bernard Hinault, placed second on the stage and first overall. This was a hilly ITT in the Isère region. Comparable? OK, how about the fact that Greg LeMond — who could ride a time trial and would end up second overall — conceded 1.23 to Hinault and 2.30 to Vanderaerden? How can two riders of the same stature be so different? How about LeMond in 1989, the last “best TT performance ever”, taking 50 seconds on a short, fast, downhill course with minimal corners, out of second placed Fignon, and 1.50 out of third placed Delgado? It happens. Nobody thinks LeMond was doped, or Hinault or Vanderaerden before that.
110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 17 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

How To Explain the Difference

Nearly all of the commenters out there exclaiming that “this is inexplicable!” are actually saying “well at least I can’t explain it!” Which is... par for the course for internet conversation, but well beneath the level expected of journalists, and even the anonymous cyclists quoted in the Ouest-France story.

If Pogačar and Vingegaard were even right up to the time trial, and then ceased to be on the TT itself, there are actually quite a variety of explanations. They involve all of the differences from Sunday to Tuesday: different courses, different distances, different bikes, different clothing, different skills and even different preparation, with a full 48(ish) hours between efforts.

110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 16 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

1. Different bikes

I will start here, because it’s the biggest, easiest difference to digest for people in the know. The problem is that it involves a lot of proprietary technology, so the number of people actually in the know is not as large a group as you might suspect. it’s a lot of engineers who aren’t calling in to cycling podcasts.

It simply boils down to aerodynamics. The very top riders have custom TT bikes and bars made to maximize their advantages. They have wheels with varying rim profiles. The choice of bars is set, but the wheels... you need to see what the wind conditions are and contemplate potential side-wind tradeoffs. More disc is not always better. And that’s before you contemplate the climb.

110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 16 Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Both riders rode a full disc rear wheel with a front wheel of maybe 80mm but Vingo took that setup to the end while Pogs got off his for the climb. That’s one difference. Then there are the hidden details. Not all wheels or bars are created equally. In fact, at this level, it’s closer to say that NONE of them are. Only the people in the wind tunnels can say for sure. But there’s talk.

This sort of anonymous tip sounds credible to me, because it can only come from people looking at data — otherwise, there’s nothing to say about the bike. I’ve heard some things about Vingegaard’s bike on the positive side. There were seconds to be had there, per km.

The reason I find the Ouest-France article less than credible is that their sources are undoubtedly some French riders with whom the journalist is familiar, who feel comfortable sharing their candid remarks. Well... those guys don’t go in the wind tunnel. Riders probably only know about the aero advantages being applied to them, and those aero advantages are limited to the top riders on the top teams. Do Cofidis ever see the inside of a wind tunnel? Does any team’s #4 or 5 guy? Doubtful. So if these folks are unable to accept technological advantages, then they are just shit-talking. Refer the journos to your engineering staff next time.

2. Technique

You’ve probably seen this by now. If you were watching live and your heart was in your throat, then you noticed Vingegaard absolutely railing the corners and descents early on in the time trial.

This is anecdotal and maybe Pogs made up some time on technical merit, but the fact is that in the early phase you could see Vingegaard riding a better race. Between the Passy checkpoint and when Pogs changed bikes for the Domancy climb, Vingegaard stretched his lead from 16 to 50 seconds. From there, he put another 48 seconds into the Slovene, which could come down to more technique, lost rhythm by Pogs due to the bike change, or just pure power by Jonas. But undoubtedly technique played a role.

Keep in mind that technique on the time trial bike is not inherited, but earned, specifically by practicing on the bike. Did Tadej get on his much? We know that he broke his wrist in late April and spent May on an indoor trainer. That can’t have helped hone his technique.

110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 16 Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

3. Fitness

Speaking of, how can people rule out the perfectly natural explanation as to why Jonas suddenly was going much faster — that he had a perfect run of preparation while Pogačar had anything but. As great as he was through two weeks, we have seen any number of recent Tours separate starting after the second rest day. Remember Froome vs. Aru in 2017? They were 18 seconds apart on stage 16, before that number went out to multiple minutes. That’s happened a lot (see my Monday post), because the champion often has the best legs at the end. Sometimes the difference is dramatic, as it was this week and in 2017. The difference is that in 2017 it was expected, but given Pogs’ interrupted training, maybe our expectations are part of the problem.

Also, are you supposed to do this on the second rest day?

Not sure. Hey, he’s a fun guy, I’m happy for him in general. But producing the perfect Tour de France is a rather monastic journey, and jumping in cold water is not part of it. Not til you get to Paris. Then it’s a terrific idea.

4. Overall Professionalism

This is a catch-all for all the other little marginal gains that riders make. It’s become a cliché but the fact remains that the richest, best-run teams have small advantages here and there. Their skinsuits are faster. Their nutrition program is better. Their commitment to a race is more precise and thorough. They do more recons. And so on. Jumbo Visma have shown themselves to be dedicated to the details more than most if not all other teams. UAE... do we know this about them? They have a lot of money, and some history, but what are they doing to take advantage? Boring as it is to say, this stuff really does add up.

I get it, newspapers have bills to pay, and a big splashy headline about PROFESSIONALISM!! just doesn’t keep the lights on. But it does explain Tuesday’s results. Jumbo were dialed into every detail. Jumbo had Vingegaard ready to blast out aggressively and take advantage of the shortness of the course, as well as its many changes. Jumbo had Wout Van Aert setting the tone for some of those details, cutting the corners a while before Vingegaard set off, giving valuable feedback to his team car to relay to his leader. Maybe Pogačar had versions of all this, I’m not accusing UAE of malpractice. But I suspect they aren’t as truly nailed down on the details as the obsessively detailed Jumbo team is said to be.

I personally believe Vingegaard is just perfectly dialed in to his efforts, with a mature but very aggressive mentality that enabled him to be feeling extraordinarily strong while taking huge risks at the same time. I believe his team got him the fastest equipment, and got him enough practice flattening his back and climbing in the TT rig to maximize his technology over the various types of terrain we saw in the Combloux ITT. And above all else, I believe Pogačar finally hit the wall fitness wise after his interrupted spring prep took him as far as it could and no farther.

110th Tour de France 2023 - Stage 16 Photo by Bernard Papon - Pool/Getty Images

I don’t believe Wout Van Aert should have finished any closer to Vingegaard Tuesday — he weighs about 30 pounds more and Vingegaard, in addition to being fast on the flats, is probably the world’s strongest climber now. When the two have climbed together under full power, they are totally different species. That matters very very much when you have 2.5km at 9%. I don’t believe any of the other contenders besides Pogačar should have given Vingegaard more trouble, since there aren’t too many notable TTers among the climbers, and since the top time triallists like Stefan Küng are bigger riders who wouldn’t like this course. If you take a little bit of time out of each factor discussed here, you can get to 1.38 and more. That’s what happened.*

[* I think. And I hope I am right, because this sure does seem to be how cycling works now. But I guess you never know, do you?]