PARIS — Head down and legs churning, Jonas Vingegaard crossed the finish line of the penultimate stage of the Tour de France on Saturday and cupped his hand over his mouth, as if to stifle a gasp. He had done what he had come to do, and his astonishing accomplishment was sinking in.
In only his second Tour de France, and only three years after becoming a professional cyclist, Vingegaard, a 25-year-old Danish rider, had cemented a victory in cycling’s most prestigious race.
Vingegaard finished second in Saturday’s time trial to his Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert, but his effort on the 25-mile course was enough to leave him with such a large lead in the overall standings — 3 minutes 34 seconds — that no one will be able to catch him on Sunday, when the race concludes with its traditional celebratory ride into Paris.
“Since last year I always believed I could do it,” Vingegaard said, as his eyes began to well with tears. “It’s a relief that I did.”
After 76 hours, 33 minutes and 57 seconds of racing and nearly three full weeks of the Tour, Vingegaard found his partner and toddler daughter in the area past the finish line and gave them a long, sweaty hug.
“Having my two girls on the finish line means even more to me,” he told a postrace interviewer, pausing briefly to wipe away a few tears. “I’m just so happy, and proud,” he added.
While Vingegaard had pedaled up and down all the endless hills and unforgiving mountains, and across all the flat roads past fields of flowers and farms, he had wanted to win for them. During every day of searing heat that at times rose above 100 degrees, melting pavement and sidelining some riders with heat exhaustion, he said, he had steeled himself for them.
And, in the end, Vingegaard, who grew up in a small fishing town in northern Denmark, won what was arguably one of the most grueling Tours in history.
Tadej Pogacar, the Slovenian looking for his third straight Tour win, remained in second place overall after Stage 20 after fighting with Vingegaard for the lead until the final few stages. Geraint Thomas of Britain, the 2018 Tour winner, was third, 8 minutes 13 seconds back.
“I think the battle between me and Jonas was really something special,” said Pogacar, 23. “It’s going to be an interesting couple of years ahead for us. He’s stepped up from last year, he’s taken control of things from the beginning, and he’s proved he’s a strong rider.”
Going into this Tour, Pogacar most likely expected Vingegaard to be his greatest rival after Vingegaard’s improbable second-place finish last year.
In 2021, Jumbo-Visma’s top rider, Primoz Roglic, had dropped out of the Tour after a crash and Vingegaard took it upon himself to show what he could do. His performance was breathtaking — and unexpected. On the daunting Mont Ventoux, he left Pogacar behind to record one of the fastest times ever for that legendary climb.
Vingegaard’s entire career has been nothing short of a fairy tale played out on two wheels and on fast forward.
Six months before joining Jumbo-Visma in 2019, he was working part-time in a Danish factory where he gutted, cleaned and packed fish into ice-filled boxes. Before that, he worked at a fish auction. He credits those days of waking at 4 a.m. and all that hard manual labor in the shivering cold with helping him get to where he is now, at the top of the cycling world.
His Jumbo-Visma team, especially van Aert, who is from Belgium, was at his side all the way.
Van Aert will finish the Tour in the green jersey, which is awarded to the rider who accumulates the most points for stage finishes and in midrace sprint sections. He might even add to his three stage wins in this year’s Tour if he crosses the line first on Sunday.
But perhaps van Aert’s biggest achievement over the past three weeks has been his support of Vingegaard. Van Aert was there for Vingegaard when Vingegaard needed him the most on the grueling Hautacam climb that turned out to be the deciding stage in the overall competition. He took off on a breakaway and mercilessly dictated a fast pace, challenging the notion at 6-foot-3 that light, smaller riders — like Vingegaard — are naturally the best climbers.
Pogacar, who was battling Vingegaard for the overall lead, couldn’t keep up. As Vingegaard and van Aert kept climbing, Pogacar faded, looking like a car coasting down a hill in neutral as the Jumbo-Visma teammates charged ahead.
The Jumbo-Visma team has won six of the Tour’s 20 stages entering Sunday’s finale, and van Aert was in tears on Saturday because he was so overwhelmed with his team’s effort, and also his own stage win. He said he could not be happier for Vingegaard and that the day was “a dream scenario.”
“Jonas was such a strong guy, but especially is such a good guy,” he said.
After Saturday’s stage, though, Vingegaard faced questions about his fairy-tale career. One reporter asked him about his rapid rise in the sport, and about how he could finish 22nd in the 2019 Danish national time trial and then go on to nearly win Saturday’s time trial after three weeks of the Tour.
If Vingegaard was familiar at all with Tour history, or Danish racing history, it was possible that he expected the question. The only other Dane to win the Tour was Bjarne Riis in 1996, and a decade later Riis admitted that he had doped to win the race. Many past winners, though none recently, have either been caught doping or have admitted to doing so.
No, Vingegaard said, he did not go fast because he had doped. It happened because he and his team improved his aerodynamics by toiling in the wind tunnel and adjusting his body position and bike.
“We’re totally clean,” he said in his news conference, broadening his denial to include his entire team. “Every one of us. I can say that to every one of you. No one of us is taking anything illegal.”
High-altitude training camps and attention to detail — in food, in equipment, in preparation — was behind Jumbo-Visma’s rise, he said. “That’s why you have to trust,” he said.
Vingegaard appears to take sportsmanship seriously. On one descent during Stage 18, Pogacar crashed on a section of gravel as he and Vingegaard zoomed down a hill nearly side by side. But instead of taking advantage of Pogacar’s fall, Vingegaard waited for him down the road, allowing his rival catch up.
After coming back together, Pogacar reached out in an expression of gratitude and the two clenched hands in a moment that will be replayed for years as an example of the good side of sports.
But only one of them now will climb atop the podium in Paris and celebrate on the Champs-Élysées. Only one will pose for photos and family memories that will last a lifetime. And only one will be celebrated in his home country this summer as the king of cycling.
A series of ceremonies honoring Vingegaard already is scheduled to be held in Copenhagen, the city that hosted the start of this year’s Tour — the kickoff to Vingegaard’s ride to victory.