You’re probably familiar with the tired sportswriting cliché of comparing an unequivocally non-combat sport to boxing. The Super Bowl is a fight. Cavaliers versus Warriors has become a brawl. Grandfather’s petanque tournament has become Hagler-Hearn.
Journalists covering the Tour de France are hardly immune to this rhetorical trope. But having covered professional cycling for almost two decades, I will tell you that there are situations during the Tour where the boxing comparison is appropriate. You’ve no doubt seen video clips of those moments popping up on social media.
I’ll set the scene: a small group of cyclists pedal an incredibly long and steep climb at a breakneck pace. Suddenly, a rider presses his pedals and accelerates away from the group. The move causes others to pick up speed to chase him away. Suddenly, the runners run off one by one, playing cat and mouse on the climb, until some run out and the group begins to dwindle. After a few minutes, there are only two runners left, attacking, chasing and attacking again to the top.
Froome, Contador, Porte, Alaphilippe and many more face off #Dauphine top finish!
📺: Peacock pic.twitter.com/YHgdqHi9Ld
— NBC Sports Cycling (@NBCSCycling) May 30, 2023
These ferocious bursts are the cyclist’s version of an uppercut to the face. Next time you see a scenario like this, I want you to imagine that every cyclist has the green health bar from Mortal Kombat video game (or Street Fighter) above his head. With each speed increase, this health bar rapidly changes from green to red. Then, when the rider rests, the health bar recovers. When a rider slows down due to too many accelerations, it’s the cycling version of a knockout.
Cycling writers use a variety of metaphors to describe this dynamic: matches in a matchbook, bullets in a gun, playing cards in a poker game. I prefer the boxing idiom.
The best riders on the Tour train their bodies to be able to accelerate, rest and accelerate again for hours, day after day. The best are the runners who can land the most punches – or register the hardest punch – during one of these fights.
— NBC Sports Cycling (@NBCSCycling) July 14, 2023
I raise all this because the Tour de France 2023 has become a thrilling fight on the slopes of the Alps in recent days. reigning champion Jonas Vingegaard from Denmark, leader of the race and double winner Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia took turns fighting with blistering attacks. It all started on Friday July 14, on the slopes of the Grande Colombière. Pogacar called on his UAE side to drop Vingaard’s Jumbo Visma teammates on the towering climb, then Pogacar landed a mighty punch near the top. He slipped away from Vingegaard in the final kilometer to take an eight-second lead from the Dane. You can see the movement in the clip above.
A real battle at the top of the Col de La Joux Plane 🤯⚔️
— Bike (@velovelovelo__) July 15, 2023
The next day, Pogacar relentlessly attacked Vingegaard on the slopes of Col de Joux Plane, fleeing again and again. Pogacar’s accelerations were so quick that he caught and nearly collided with a TV motorcycle near the top. He maintained the aggressiveness on the next stage, another mountainous course. But Vingaard absorbed Pogacar’s blows, like Rocky Balboa youaking haymaking after haymaking by Ivan Drago In Rocky IV. The race remained tight. After Sunday’s stage 15, Vingaard was only ten seconds ahead of Pogacar.
— Esencia Ciclista (@EsenciaCiclista) July 15, 2023
The ferocity of the battle has not escaped long-time followers of the sport. You may have seen the headlines about this Tour being one of the best ever. “I can’t believe how good this Tour de France is” writes columnist Jason Gay in Monday’s print edition of The Wall Street Journal. I thought back to the Tours of yore to try and remember when two runners would throw so many punches without one of them capitulating. I’ve watched the Tour every year since 1999, and for my life I can’t remember a battle like this.
Of course, all good fights must come to an end, and this one seems to have reached its conclusion over the past two days. On Tuesday, July 18, Vingaard scored what appeared to be a TKO in the individual time trial: a race against time where riders go one by one. He crossed the hilly 14-mile course in 32 minutes and 36 seconds, 1:38 faster than Pogacar. Cycling commentators Bridie O’Donnell and Simon Gerrans from Australian TV channel SBS did a fantastic job analyzing Vingaard’s time trial victory in the following clip.
Where Vingaard took time off Pogacar during stage 16 of the Tour de France!@simongerrans And @Bridie_OD break the aggressiveness of the Dane in the turns! #sbstdf #TDF2023 #couchpeloton pic.twitter.com/s8BkceMlXT
— SBS Sport (@SBSSportau) July 18, 2023
Vingaard’s margin of victory was so huge – individual time trials that are often decided by seconds – that several cycling experts on Twitter wondered if the result was too good to be true – code for suspected doping. How could Pogacar have lost by such a wide margin when the two seemed to be tied in previous battles?
The cycling world got its answer a day later, on Wednesday’s mountainous 17th stage through the Alps to the ski resort of Corchevel. As the peloton pedaled over the Col de la Loze – a massive 17-mile climb – Pogacar drifted off the back and lost contact with the group, long before the fight even started. The TV show aired his team’s radio audio. “I’m gone, I’m dead,” he said. Long story short: Pogacar was exhausted and that gap during the time trial was due to his legs weakening.
🚴Tadej Pogacar: 🗣️ “I left. I am dead”
Así las cosas en el Tour de France🤷🏻♂️
— Coco Trejo (@CoqueTrejo) July 19, 2023
I have one last boxing comparison for you. Pogacar against Vingaard was the cycling version of the Rumble in the Jungle, the historic 1974 fight in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Contemporary boxing scholars still debate why Ali beat Foreman, but everyone agrees that Foreman’s aggression in the early rounds left him completely exhausted by the end, when Ali came to life and knocked him out. Foreman “retired” from the fight, as the old saying goes.
I think that’s what happened to Pogacar. He fought hard in the final week of the Tour de France and was the most aggressive rider in the race for several days. But it’s a three-week race, and every acceleration hurts. And on Wednesday, Pogacar was simply out of shots.