Sporting history has been peppered with titanic third tussles between iconic competitors: the Thrilla in Manila, the 1981 Wimbledon men’s final, the 1500 metres in Moscow, errr… the 1999/2000 Premier League football season (okay, maybe that one’s a bit of a stretch).
So who will come out on top in the third, eagerly anticipated instalment of the Tour de France’s latest epic rivalry – Jonas Vingegaard or Tadej Pogačar?
Because, let’s face it, the battle for the yellow jersey at the 2023 Tour Hommes is all about Vingegaard-Pogačar III.
The duo’s rivalry has dominated the last two editions of cycling’s biggest race, with Pogačar casually seeing off the young pretender, thrust into the spotlight following teammate Primož Roglič’s abandon, in 2021, before Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma executed one of the great Tour mountain coups to shock the Slovenian in last year’s rematch.
And judging by their seasons so far, their dual hegemony shows no signs of abating. After falling short at Paris-Nice, Vingegaard looked eerily smooth on his way to overall wins at the Tour of the Basque Country and the Critérium du Dauphiné, beating Pogačar’s UAE teammate Adam Yates by almost two-and-a-half minutes at the latter.
While the calculated Dane again opted to follow the tried-and-trusted Tour Winner’s Guide to Yellow (stage race, training camp, stage race), his Slovenian rival was busy ripping up the rulebook.
The 24-year-old put together one of the best spring campaigns cycling has ever seen, taking an astonishing 11 wins from just 18 race days, including victories at the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne, and Paris-Nice. A nasty crash and broken wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège derailed his hopes for an Ardennes Triple, and hampered his pre-Tour prep, but it would take a fool to write off the 24-year-old superstar’s hopes of a third yellow jersey.
With all that in mind, we thought we’d put the toughest question in bike racing – Jonas or Pog? – to our self-appointed ‘expert’ panel of racing fans in the road.cc office (spoiler alert – the vote is split).
But, of course, the Tour de France isn’t just about who’ll be wearing yellow in Paris. We asked the panel what they thought about the GC outsiders, who’ll be targeting the other jerseys on offer, and which precocious young gun could potentially spring a surprise.
The panel members were also asked what they thought about the route, how they think the race’s tactical narrative will develop, and what they’re most looking forward to over the next three weeks (dreams of a 35th Tour stage win for a certain Manx sprinter pop up quite a bit on that one).
Because, despite the dominance of the Big Two™, there are plenty of opportunities for others to shine on this year’s Tour route, from promising GC hopefuls like Tour de Suisse winner Mattias Skjelmose to retiring climbers like Thibaut Pinot, riveting attackers such as Julian Alaphilippe, and scintillating sprinters such as Jasper Philipsen.
Although it’s perhaps fair to say, despite the balanced nature of the route, that the 2023 race can hardly be described as a Tour of France, missing as it does great swathes of the south-east and basically the entire north of the country.
As noted in our stage-by-stage guide to this year’s Tour, the condensed nature of the route, taking in all five of France’s mountain ranges, kicks off hard – a hilly, punchy start in the Basque Country is followed by a (relatively benign) early sojourn into the Pyrenees, before a lumpy weekend in the Massif Central culminates in the eagerly anticipated return of the fearsomely difficult Puy de Dôme, an icon of the Tour last tackled in 1988.
A varied week two features a few opportunities for the puncheurs and sprinters before a trio of Alpine delights, including summit finishes at the Grand Colombier (on Bastille Day) and Saint-Gervais, while the dreadfully steep Joux Plane acts as the focal point of stage 14 before the fast, hairy plunge into Morzine.
The final week kicks off with the only time trial of the race, a hilly 22km affair featuring the Côte de Domancy, where Bernard Hinault stormed to the rainbow jersey in 1980. The 2023 Tour is certainly not kind to its solo specialists – only 2015 had fewer individual time trialling kilometres in the post-war period, and even it had a team effort – an observation underlined by the following stage’s inclusion of the Col de la Loze, the roof of the race and the scene of Pogačar’s brief wobble in 2020.
The route is, however, more favourable to the sprinters (for once). There are eight or nine potential stages for the fast men, an apparent reversal of ASO’s anti-bunch kick bias in recent years. Two final-week flat and rolling transition stages (a rarity in the modern Tour) will take the riders to the Vosges for what the organisers hope will be a decisive, suspense-filled penultimate day.
Lots to chew on, then, over the course of this year’s Tour. So, without further ado, here are road.cc’s predictions for La Grande Boucle. Get that pinch of salt at the ready…
Who'll be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris? Tadej Pogačar. Will the injury and enforced lay-off turn out to be a blessing in disguise? Forcing the constant attacks and race wins to a halt for a couple of months and leaving the Slovenian to peak at just the right time? Perhaps. That's what I'm going for anyway.
Who else is going to be on the podium? Crash, illness, or incident aside it's hard to see how it doesn't end up a Pogačar and Vingegaard 1-2, even if the order is up for debate. Despite his disappointing Dauphiné I'll go for David Gaudu to step up to the best of the rest role and claim a podium spot, aided by the lack of time trialling on this year's route.
Pog is Dan’s pick for yellow and white this year (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
What about the other jerseys? Pogačar white. Philipsen green. Pinot polka dots. No brave calls here.
What do you make of the route? The Basque Grand Depart will be spectacular and overall the route looks very demanding and hits all five of the French mountain ranges. A return to the Puy de Dôme summit finish and the opening weekend are the days I'm most excited for, the Basque crowds will live long in the memory I'm sure.
How will the race play out tactically? With such punchy, challenging stages in the Basque Country, the GC fight could be on from the first weekend. If Pogačar were 100 percent fit I'm sure we'd have seen him attacking early and looking to win stages in the opening week for the bonus seconds. We assume he's not at his best... yet, which means it will be interesting to see how conservative he is with his efforts. Will he try to peak for the Alps or will the route force him to show his hand early on? Either way, I'd assume Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates will be more than happy to let some plucky breakaway attackers (or possibly just the race-winning goliath that is Mathieu van der Poel) enjoy yellow for the first week, saving their legs for the battles later in the race.
Who could spring a surprise? Mattias Skjelmose. Won Tour de Suisse. Won the Danish national road race, second in the time trial. Top tens at all three of the Ardennes classics. Has 23 top 10s from 34 race days this year. A debut Tour will be a big step up from everything else, but he's bang in form.
Could 22-year-old Skjelmose surprise the favourites? (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
Which sprinter will dominate? Think it'll be a battle for dominance between Jasper Philipsen and Alpecin Deceuninck versus Fabio Jakobsen and Soudal Quickstep. Two stage wins each. Just as long as they let Cav have one, you'll hear no complaints here...
What are you most looking forward to? Thibaut Pinot's La Marseillaise-blasting, chest-thumping, Bastille Day stage win at Grand Colombier to bring down the curtain on his final Tour de France. Please, cycling gods, just give us this one...
Who’ll be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris? My head says Vingegaard, my heart says Pogačar. I’ll plump for Pogačar. Despite his crushing display at the Slovenian nationals, there are still serious doubts over the two-time winner’s form and fitness following his crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (to the extent that UAE Team Emirates have been talking up Adam Yates as the squad’s co-leader. Yeah, right). But I think that enforced lay-off could do the Slovenian the world of good. He should be fresher, both mentally and physically, than he was this time last year, which could make all the difference come Paris. We’d also be looking at one of the all-time great seasons if he regains the yellow jersey, which is exciting.
Who else is going to be on the podium? Away from the Pog and Jonas show, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll end up standing on the bottom step of the podium in Paris. I quite fancy the prospect of an Aussie ding-dong battle between Ben O’Connor and Jai Hindley for third, with Hindley’s staying power in grand tours just about edging it. David Gaudu was completely out-of-sorts at the Dauphiné, but the TT-lite route suits him down to the ground. Enric Mas will slot into the middle and lower ranks of the top 10, Zubeldia-style, though I reckon Romain Bardet – who has been very consistent so far this season – is due one last big GC bid.
What about the other jerseys? White jersey is Pogačar’s, obviously. The polka-dot could well end up on the shoulders of Gaudu, if he’s forced to recalibrate his objectives after sliding out of sight in the Pyrenees early on. A rejuvenated Alaphilippe may be up for it too. With Van Aert saying he’s not going for green, I expect Mads Pedersen to be the one to beat – he’s fast enough and strong enough to win the points jersey, although the increased number of sprint stages this year could catapult Fabio Jakobsen and Jasper Philipsen into contention too, and I’m intrigued to see how Biniam Girmay will fare in his first Tour.
What do you make of the route? I really like it, and it’s certainly a climber’s route. It’s as if the organisers copied the homework of the 1992 and 2009 Tours, which started in the Basque Country and the south of France respectively, but made them better and more balanced. The punchy start and the early journey into the Pyrenees, a necessity of geography for the route planners, should make for an exciting and fascinating first week. The transition stages after the first rest day, like the second week of the 2009 race, could potentially drag, but I’m just glad to see plenty of opportunities for the sprinters after last year’s anti-fast twitch route. The string of stages in the Alps will be brutal. The paltry amount of time trialling shouldn’t really change much yellow jersey-wise, as Pogačar and Vingegaard would crush everyone else anyway. And, most importantly, the Puy de Dôme is back!
How will the race play out tactically? The nature of the route makes me think we could see a replay of last year’s tactical narrative, where Pogačar chips away at Vingegaard in the Pyrenees and on the Puy de Dôme, before the Jumbo juggernaut roars into action in the Alps and tries to land one, race-killing haymaker. Of course, there’s the possibility that UAE Team Emirates have learned from last year’s mistakes, and will aim to keep their leader’s powder dry for when it really matters. Which means we could potentially be in for a long opening two weeks of shadow boxing. I also fear that, such is their overwhelming superiority, the rest will just leave the big two to it and focus on stage wins and that final spot on the podium.
Can Pidcock make another big leap forward at the Tour? (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
Who could spring a surprise? It wouldn’t be a massive surprise, but could Tom Pidcock save the day for a slightly directionless Ineos and land a breakthrough top overall placing at a grand tour? His GC performance at the Tour de Suisse would suggest otherwise, but he could have been biding his time for the big one (unlike, say, the much talked about Mattias Skjelmose, who I reckon may have left his best legs in Switzerland, though I could be wrong). Carlos Rodríguez is another enticing GC prospect, if Ineos back him. Also, debutant Axel Zingle will end Cofidis’ 15-year stage win drought at the Tour, you heard it here first.
Which sprinter will dominate? I expect Jasper Philipsen, with Mathieu van der Poel leading him out, to build on last year’s breakthrough Tour with a couple more stage wins, though I’m anticipating an exciting battle with Jakobsen.
Can home favourite Pinot go out with a bang at his last ever Tour de France? (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
What are you most looking forward to? The Puy de Dôme’s triumphant return to the Tour after 35 years will be something special, and probably the single stage I’ve been most buzzing about for years and years. And of course, there are two outgoing Tour icons, Mark Cavendish and Thibaut Pinot, desperate for one last big win in France. Cav will probably have to rely on a split in the bunch or slipping into the move on a windy day. But surely it’s written in the stars…
Who’ll be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris? It's hard to look past Jonas Vingegaard, but it's a three-week race and anything can happen. Matthias Skjelmose is worth a few quid each way.
Who else is going to be on the podium? Pogačar and Skjelmose to complete the podium. Pinot just sneaking into the top 10 to see out his career. Gaudu to disappoint, again. Bardet best-placed Frenchman, but not near enough to get anyone excited.
What about the other jerseys? Philipsen will want green and has the finish and strength on the hills to claim it, but it'll depend on how long a leash Wout van Aert gets on the non-critical stages. Pedersen in with a shout too. Pinot will want the polka dots but maybe not strong enough to take it from Ciccone or one of the big GC guys.
What do you make of the route? Interesting lumpy start that has enough about it to get some of the big hitters interested on stage 2. By the time there's a sprint stage there may be big enough time gaps for a larger break to get away but the sprint teams will be super keen because there's not much in the route for them. The second half looks pretty attritional and there's plenty of back-to-back hard days for the GC contenders to navigate.
How will the race play out tactically? A few yellow jersey changes in the first week but by the time the first rest day comes we'll have gone over the Tourmalet and up two summit finishes, and the main hitters will want to be in yellow by then. It looks like a route where someone will fall apart in the last week, and of course there's an uphill TT where the deck can get shuffled.
Who could spring a surprise? I mean, Pinot might. But it's the hope that kills you, right?
Which sprinter will dominate? I don't think any sprinter will dominate. The fairy tale ending is for Cav to make it to the end and win in Paris.
What are you most looking forward to? Stages 14 through to 17. Some big, big stages and whoever's in yellow after that run will probably wear it to Paris.
Who’ll be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris? Jonas Vingegaard.
Who else is going to be on the podium? Tadej Pogačar, Ben O'Connor.
What about the other jerseys? Wout Van Aert in green, Pogačar in polka dot, but Esteban Chaves if it’s not a GC contender.
What do you make of the route? Slightly odd to not begin on sprint days as it means the pure sprinters won’t have a chance at yellow. I would have liked to have seen at least a second TT as I think the lack of it has put off riders such as Evenepoel. Plenty of opportunities for breakaways, the sprint teams will have limited chances.
Will it be back-to-back wins for Jonas and Jumbo? (A.S.O./Aurélien Vialatte)
How will the race play out tactically? If I were Jumbo Visma then I’d go out hard and make those mountain stages on the 5th and 6th stages decisive in the hope that Pog hasn’t fully recovered from his broken wrist. Neither Jumbo nor UAE have an insane climbing train so I think we’ll see them let a breakaway take yellow in order to save manpower.
Who could spring a surprise? I don’t think anyone is capable of surprising Pog or Vingegaard but I think that Felix Gall is a rider to watch.
Which sprinter will dominate? I would love to say Cav but my head says Fabio Jakobsen, closely followed by Jasper Phillipsen.
What are you most looking forward to? Cav winning on the Champs-Élysées and seeing the unlikely places where he receives help from – Kwiatkowski lead out like in the Sky days?
Who’ll be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris? Unless injuries or illness intervene, it’s Jonas Vingegaard or Tadej Pogacar. The latter was in astonishing form until crashing at Liège in April and before that had the better of his rival at Paris-Nice. His victories at the Slovenian national championships may not carry the same pre-Tour weight as Vingegaard’s Dauphiné win, but he comes here with perhaps his strongest team yet. I suspect Sepp Kuss’s heroics for Primož Roglič at the Giro may take their toll as the race goes on and cost Vingegaard vital support when he most needs it.
Who else is going to be on the podium? David Gaudu now has the burden of being the main home hope for the overall, but like anyone else with podium ambitions, he’d need misfortune to befall the past two winners if he is to be standing on anything above the bottom step come Paris. Others in contention for that third step, or at least a top-5 place include Enric Mas, although he may have more of an eye on the Vuelta later in this year, Ben O’Connor if he can avoid the injury and bad luck that befell him last year, plus Jai Hindley.
Will Biniam Girmay target green at his first Tour? (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
What about the other jerseys? Left-field here. I don’t think enough stages will end in bunch finishes for it to be a pure sprinter for the points jersey, and Mathieu van der Poel is out because the sprint stages will be contested by his teammate Jasper Philipsen. Wout van Aert will have team duties, so I am going for Biniam Girmay, I can see a good few stage finishes where he may figure and pick up points, but the pure sprinters won’t. Tadej Pogacar won’t be wearing the white jersey on the final stage if my prediction for the overall is correct – but if he’s in yellow that day, he’ll be taking the best young rider’s competition too. Assuming the polka dots don’t go to the overall winner – something that has happened in each of the past three years – there are a good few candidates around, but I’m going for Giulio Ciccone, who has topped the mountains classification at the Giro d’Italia in the past.
What do you make of the route? It’s an astonishingly tough opening week with those three mountain stages following the Grand Départ itself, and the climbing doesn’t let up mid-race either with five successive days in the mountains around the second rest day. The final week will almost come as a relief.
How will the race play out tactically? Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates to watch each other closely in the opening days, with the GC battle exploding into life on the second Sunday on the Puy de Dôme. It’s the five successive days in the mountains in the middle of the race that intrigue me most for the overall, with little chance for recovery, the rest day apart. Several teams have dispensed with GC ambitions (at least in public – in private, any would be happy with getting a rider or two into the top 10, so tactics may evolve as the overall standings take shape), and I think we’ll see a lot of attacking on individual stages, especially the more hilly ones.
Who could spring a surprise? Uno-X will be chomping at the bit for their debut Tour, I think they will be on the attack most days, and I can see them winning a stage or two … Søren Wærenskjold looks a terrific prospect.
Which sprinter will dominate? Fabio Jakobsen, but Caleb Ewan and Jasper Philipsen will be in the mix with him.
From Rome to Paris? Maybe, just maybe... (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
What are you most looking forward to? Win number 35, aren’t we all? And my prediction is it will come in a messy finish, perhaps with a crash inside the final couple of kilometres, when Cav’s 20 years of race craft will have kept him out of trouble and he’ll latch onto the correct wheel for an unwitting leadout from a rival.
3-2 then for Pog over Jonas, according to the road.cc panel, as well as plenty of belief in a fairy tale ending for Cavendish. What do you reckon? Who got their predictions spot on and who’s talking rubbish?
And, if you think you can do better, make sure to join us and pick your own team for our road.cc Fantasy Tour de France…
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.