Danish cyclist Jonas Vingegaard wins Tour de France

Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, passes the Louvre Museum during the 21st stage of the Tour de France cycling race, which finished on the Champs Elysees in Paris, France, Sunday, July 24, 2022. (Bertrand Guay/Pool via AP)

King of the mountains. Champion on the Champs-Elysees.

Jonas Vingegaard blossomed from a talented rookie to a dominant leader in his own right over three weeks of epic racing to win his first Tour de France title on Sunday.

The former fish factory worker from Denmark dethroned defending champion Tadej Pogacar with memorable performances in the mountains in cycling’s biggest race.

The 25-year-old Vingegaard, who was runner-up to Pogacar in his first Tour last year, excelled in the scorching heat that enveloped France this month and came out on top of a thrilling duel with Pogacar, the big favorite at the start of the race.

Jasper Philipsen won Sunday’s last stage — a mainly processional ride around Paris to the Champs-Elysees — in a sprint ahead of Dylan Groenewegen and Alexander Kristoff.

Vingegaard competed last year as a replacement for Tom Dumoulin in the Jumbo-Visma squad. It was a revelation for Vingegaard as he realized that he could fight for the overall title after dropping Pogacar in the famed Mont Ventoux climb, but his Slovenian rival was at the top of his game and largely untouchable.

A year later, Vingegaard stood on top of the podium after building his triumph with two phenomenal rides in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

The official overall margin of victory was 2 minutes, 43 seconds but Vingegaard slowed down toward the end of the stage to celebrate with teammates, crossing well after Pogacar. Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour champion, was 7:22 off the pace in third.

Three weeks ago in Copenhagen, the Jumbo-Visma team started the race with two leaders — Vingegaard and three-time Spanish Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic. But Roglic’s challenge took a blow when he suffered a dislocated shoulder and lost more than two minutes to Pogacar on the cobbled fifth stage of the race, leaving Vingegaard in a sole leader’s role.

Vingegaard more than exceeded expectations from that moment.

He made his intentions clear in the first big mountain stage up the Col du Granon to seize the race leader’s yellow jersey from Pogacar, who fell more than two minutes behind that day. Having claimed the famed tunic during a stage featuring three monster Alpine climbs, Vingegaard kept it until the end.

With the help of teammates including the versatile Wout Van Aert, Vingegaard responded to the relentless attacks launched by Pogacar day in, day out. His supremacy in the mountains was such that, in addition to his overall win, Vingegaard also claimed the jersey for king of the mountains — not bad for a rider who comes from a country whose highest point is barely 170 meters above sea level.

Vingegaard and Pogacar were clearly in a class of their own this year as their closest rival, Thomas, was reduced to being a mere spectator in the leaders’ fight.

Vingegaard delivered his decisive blow in the Pyrenees, posting a second stage win at the Hautacam ski resort. There the Dane responded to a series of attacks from Pogacar and ultimately dropped the Slovenian in the last big mountain stage of this year’s race to increase his overall lead to more than three minutes.

Pogacar cracked about four kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the finish in the final ascent, with his hopes of winning a third consecutive title all but over. He fought until the very end but Vingegaard was again the strongest in Saturday’s individual time trial to effectively secure the title.

“The battle between me and Jonas for the yellow jersey has been very special,” Pogacar said. “I think we have some very interesting next two or three years ahead of us. Jonas has stepped up his game this year.”

The light-framed Vingegaard is not perhaps as naturally gifted as Pogacar, who has shown over the past couple of years that he is capable of winning Grand Tours and the most prestigious one-day classics as well.

But Vingegaard surely learns fast.

Vingegaard did not experience his first ascent before he was already 16. His climbing skills would not remain unnoticed for long, though.

After he posted a record time on the Coll de Rates climb during a training camp in Spain with his former team ColoQuick, he joined Jumbo-Visma in 2019 and rapidly improved. In his first Tour last year, he showed proper leadership skills after Roglic crashed out of the race, and followed up with a cold-blooded ride to victory this summer.

The growing rivalry between Pogacar and Vingegaard has brought new race scenarios that have delighted fans.

Both men were equipped with strong teams capable of controlling the race in the mountains, an essential element that was a trademark of the mighty Ineos teams in the past decade. But on many occasions, both Pogacar and Vingegaard were left just relying on themselves in high altitude, fighting each other on equal terms.

Pogacar also brought a sense of old-fashioned romanticism with his long-range attacks. At 23, the UAE-Emirates Team has a bright future.

Vingegaard became the first Dane to win the Tour since Bjarne Riis achieved the feat in 1996 during a time when doping was widespread in cycling.

Following his retirement from cycling, Riis admitted in 2007 to using the blood-booster EPO from 1993-98, including during his Tour victory.

Asked whether his team should be trusted, Vingegaard said he and his teammates “are totally clean, every one of us.”

“No one of us is taking anything illegal,” he added. “I think why we’re so good is the preparation that we do. We take altitude camps to the next step.”