Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar remain neck-and-neck in the standings after two hard weeks of the Tour de France, but stage 16’s individual time trial on Tuesday could be the moment that decides the title.
Defending champion Vingegaard remains 10 seconds ahead of two-time winner Pogacar in what is proving to be another gripping duel for the yellow jersey.
However, neither rider can go into Tuesday’s stage with the utmost confidence of beating the other because one slip on the 22.4km race against the clock can blow away two weeks of hard work.
Riders embark individually at two-minute intervals in reverse order of the current overall standings.
That means that Jumbo-Visma rider Vingegaard is last down the ramp at Passy, the picturesque town in view of Mont Blanc.
The Dane has spent the past two weeks insisting he never thinks about his rival. But will he be able to do that with the swashbuckling Slovenian out ahead of him on what is a truly challenging course?
Three years ago Pogacar bamboozled Primoz Roglic in a similar situation by riding flat out from start to finish, to rip the title from his grasp at the last gasp.
Vingegaard, however, seems less sensitive to provocation.
“I like short, hard time trials like (Tuesday’s), there will be lots of change of pace and I like that,” explained the former fish factory worker.
“I have tested the course for the time trial and I like it too,” said the UAE rider.
This is likely to be bluff.
“This is a time trial for real mountain men,” explained course designer Thierry Gouvenou.
The last French Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault, won a world championships that covered the same route and told AFP that Pogacar and Vingegaard will have no other rivals to worry about on this course.
“You really need to be at the summit of your art. It’s made for these two guys here and I don’t know anyone who can challenge them,” Hinault said.
In the Alps, Vingegaard appears to have stemmed the tide. After three days of Pogacar clawing back time, the last two stages have been even.
The big question now remains which type of bike the riders choose to best tackle a time trial featuring both flat and hilly sections.
Third-placed Carlos Rodriguez was interviewed Monday sat in front of a mountain bike.
“It’s not worth the risk swapping bikes given what can go wrong,” said Rodriguez.
Hinault agreed with him.
“Best start off on a light bike and give it absolutely everything,” said the five-time Tour winner.
The course passes a statue of Hinault just ahead of the fearsome Cote de Domancy, a 2.5km ascent at 9.4 percent gradient.