The Rise of Jonas. How the Least Likely Junior Became a Tour de France Champion
Two years ago we were saying “Jonas who?”. It was the 2021 Tour de France (TdF), and a relatively unknown Dane by the name of Jonas Vingegaard was selected as part of Jumbo Visma’s line up to support team leader and race favourite Primož Roglič in the mountains. This Tour was supposed to be a battle royale between Roglič and the 2020 winner Tadej Pogačar. To say things did not go to plan for Roglič and the team in the 2021 Tour would be an understatement.
Things started to unravel early for Team Jumbo. In stage 3 both Roglič and experienced teammate Robert Gesink crashed, causing Gesink to abandon whilst Roglič hung on before eventually abandoning on stage 9. After losing another key teammate to another crash, none other than Tony Martin, a multiple time trial world champion, things weren’t looking good. Hardly the script for easing a young professional rider into the top echelons of the hardest race in the sport.
Or is it?
Although Vingegaard found himself in a situation where the team was in trouble (short three riders and without a leader), his build-up was devoid of leadership pressures and expectations for personal results. The only pressures were those that all first time Tour de France riders experience. Because of the unfortunate team situation in the race, he was given some freedom to ride for himself. It was only his second grand tour, and at the time even his own team management didn’t yet know how good he could be, saying in a press release mid-tour “In the future we will set higher goals for Jonas in the Tour de France, but that will not be for this year”.
To be fair, no one else was predicting what was to come for Jonas in the 2021 Tour.
Back to the race and the first indication that Jonas might be capable of doing something special came on stage 5, with a 3rd place in the Laval time trial. By the first rest day following stage 9, Pogačar was dominating the GC, Roglič abandoned, and attention was focussed on Australia’s Ben O’Connor who had surged up the GC ranks with a breakthrough win on stage 9. Meanwhile Vingegaard was sitting quietly unnoticed in 4th position at 5min 32sec down.
Quietly is an apt description for how Jonas goes about things and has become somewhat of a trademark. He is quietly spoken, respectful of others and has often been overlooked.
If I’m honest, it wasn’t until the middle of the second week on stage 11 that I really began to pay attention to Jonas. It was the stage that teammate Wout Van Aert famously won into Malaucene from a break away after not one but two ascents of the famous Mt Ventoux. On the second ascent Vingegaard attacked and dropped the yellow jersey (Pogačar) 2km from the summit of Mt Ventoux, leading by almost 40 seconds at the top. Pogačar and contenders Rigoberto Uran and Richard Carapaz joined to forces on the descent and caught him with about 1km to go, his exploits again remaining in the shadow of Van Aerts epic stage victory.
In the final week stage 17 saw riders tackle the hors categorie Col de Portet, with Vingegaard following Pogačar’s attack and finishing second on the stage ahead of Carapaz. This put Jonas into second place on the GC where he would remain into Paris.
By now the world was starting to notice. At 24 years of age Jonas was competing in only his second grand tour and finished second overall. He went on to win the 2022 and 2023 editions of the Tour de France and has achieved consistently top results since his "revelation" in 2021.
So how did Jonas rise to second place in the 2021 Tour? He was inexperienced in grand tours (which are longer than any other bike race at 3 weeks), he lacked a full team to support him and even his own team management didn’t think he was ready to be a team leader. Despite all of this he rose into leadership on the road under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Understanding the rise of Jonas requires a look into the past.
Was Jonas a Great Junior Racer?
Jonas entered cycling at age 11 and rode for his local cycling club without achieving any major wins all the way through the juniors. Many are quick to write off youngsters who aren't at the top of the junior ranks, perhaps thinking "if they aren't winning here what hope have they got winning as an adult?" The funny thing is, it is far more common for the kids who couldn't dominate the juniors to dominate the elite ranks!
In the case of Jonas, not dominating the juniors shouldn’t come as a surprise. He was born in December making him pretty much the youngest athlete in his age group, and since size and physical maturity dictate who is stronger in the junior ranks it was always unlikely he would dominate. As an adult he weighs 60kg soaking wet, so the young Jonas was undoubtedly amongst the smallest and lightest in his cohort. With most junior racing being held on sprinters flat tracks, especially in his native Denmark which is very flat, windy, cold and often raining, he had exactly the wrong build to become a shining star in the junior ranks!
Yet Jonas kept at it, developing not only the required skills but the perhaps some of the mental resilience that comes from training regularly in difficult weather and racing against bigger stronger riders. He managed to do enough to enter the u23 ranks with Danish team Odder CK where he spent the 2015 and half of the 2016 season, before moving on to ColoQuick Cult, a Danish professional team for three years.
It is this phase of his life where the well-known story of working in a fish factory took place whilst he chased his cycling ambitions. Balancing work and training are never easy. In 2016 we caught the first glimpse of his potential as a GC rider when he finished second in the Tour of China I.
Jonas started 2017 with some promising top ten placings until he broke his femur in a crash in May which ended his season. This is a big injury and takes a lot of time and hard work to recover from, the process likely forging some of the mental toughness, patience and persistence we have seen in his subsequent Tour victories.
In 2018 he managed some reasonable results without dominating and started to get noticed following a mountain time trial win the Valle d’Aosta u23 race. This saw him earn a spot on the Jumbo Visma team for 2019.
Opportunity, Learning and Progress
Riding for Jumbo in 2019 saw a breakthrough professional victory when he won the Queen stage of the Tour of Poland and took the leaders yellow jersey. He was reportedly so nervous at the unaccustomed pressure he was unable to eat breakfast before the next stage, as a result becoming energy deficient in the race and losing the jersey.
This highlights another important step on his journey, which is the exposure and opportunity to experience what it takes to win and handle all that comes with leadership. Jonas hadn’t often been in this position prior to 2019.
In 2020 covid-19 began to derail the year for many, with Jonas not starting his race season until August. He managed a top 10 GC finish in the Tour of Poland and completed his first ever grand tour where he was a mountain domestique for the winner Primož Roglič in the Vuelta Espana.
Then came his huge breakthrough year in 2021, where he took an early season win at the UAE Tour atop Jebel Jais. Even then he was confused with teammate Chris Harper, highlighting just how unknown he was amongst the peloton. He took a GC win and 2 stages at the Coppi e Bartali stage race, and he won the young riders prize in the Tour of the Basque Country on his way to 2nd overall whilst supporting his leader Primož Roglič for the win. This earnt his spot in Jumbo’s line up for the 2021 TdF, at which he shone as we have already discovered.
He went on to win the 2022 and the 2023 TdF with a brilliant display of calculating, tactical and patient racing. Watching him race, it's obvious that his his technical skills are first class, and were clearly on show when he followed Pogačar’s downhill attacks at serious speed barely inches off the wheel in this years race. His positioning in the bunch is first rate and his patience and understanding of when to conserve and when to attack is outstanding.
Where did all of this come from? Likely his junior years – if he didn’t position well and develop excellent skills and tactical sense, the littlest kid always gets dropped!
The rise of Jonas into a proverbial “overnight success” took a good 13 years! Overcoming the challenges a tiny junior faces on unfavourable terrain encourages the development of resilience, persistence and tactical nous. Being given opportunities to move forward in the sport has allowed him to develop at his own pace. These factors clearly played a part in his success.
Not everyone can win all the way through the junior ranks, and the story of Jonas, the least likely junior who became Tour de France Champion, should encourage junior cyclists to stick at it.
Moreover, it should encourage all involved adults (coaches, administrators, parents) to keep providing positive support and opportunities for all junior athletes, not just the older or more physically mature ones. If you stick at it like Jonas did, your time to shine will come too.