Less than 12 months after he used the 2020 Tour de France’s final time trial to clinch the overall win at the last minute, maillot jaune Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) will roll down the start ramp of this year’s last TT on Saturday in a rather different position.
Last September on the hills of the Vosges, the Slovenian was intent on pulling off ‘mission highly improbable’ and lifting the yellow jersey off the shoulders from Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in one last chrono-powered throw of the dice.
This time round, in the much flatter vineyards of France’s far west and with an overall advantage pushing nearly six minutes on Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma), Pogačar's biggest rival on Saturdays’ 30.8-kilometre test between Libourne and Saint-Étienne will be misfortune.
However, the question of how strongly he will actually race the TT is not at all clear. On the one hand, there’s how aggressively and ambitiously he’s ridden the entire 2021 Tour, and on the other, there’s the fact in the GC scheme of things that he has far more to lose on Saturday than he has to gain.
In favour of him riding conservatively is that only the biggest stroke of bad luck could see Pogačar lose yellow when the race is barely a day away from the finish in Paris.
This isn’t a situation where with smaller time gaps between the GC rivals, what we saw in the Laval TT, and at La Planche des Belles Filles last year, would make Saturday’s 30.8-kilometre time trial a much more tense affair.
So, it would be logical if Pogačar played it cool on Saturday. But then, in the strict scheme of things, he didn’t need to go for a stage win in either of the Pyrenean summit finishes, either. And after winning in Laval, why not go for a fourth stage victory if it’s there for the taking?
There’s also a more subtle, long-term reason for him to do exactly that. It’s same as a strong opening Tour prologue performance for a GC performer always representing an important boost to morale (and corresponding dent in their opponents confidence).
More than one past Tour de France winner has argued that winning the final TT, or at least beating your main rivals, represents “an opportunity to show the rest of the field why you are in yellow.”
In other words, doing well in the last TT is the first brick in the wall of maintaining a psychological hold over your rivals for next year’s Tour.
Pogačar was perhaps intentionally vague about his options for Saturday, promising only he would do his best. Amongst those specialists vying for the stage win, whether he’s in the mix or not, will likely be Swiss specialist and multiple European TT champion Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), surely itching to set the record straight after his narrow defeat by Pogačar at Laval.
A more intriguing option is Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). Van Aert already turned in a colossal performance in the Tours mountains on the Mont Ventoux last week. But now, he said at Friday’s start, he plans to “go full in the time trial on Saturday.”
The runner-up in last year’s TT World Championships, the reigning Belgian national time trial champion and fourth in Laval last week, Van Aert certainly has the credentials. And Saturday’s stage seems more suited to ‘power riders’ than Laval. Three kilometres longer, and with no classified climbs, the TT’s course through the vineyards of Bordeaux positively abounds in false flats, gentle rises and high-speed descents.
Quite apart from the questionnmark over Pogačar’s strategy for the TT, the rest of the GC battle seems largely settled. With the usual caveats in place, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) should have no problem fending off Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) for second place on the podium, as Carapaz, a far worse time triallist, has already all but admitted.
Whether Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) can hold off Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) for fourth, with only 32 seconds between them. That might not seem such a huge obstacle for the former Dutch national TT champion, but bear in mind this is the end of the Tour and with 2020 as a very big exception to the rule, time gaps are usually smaller between contenders.
However, the Kelderman-O’Connor duel is perhaps the only real question in the order of the GC's top 10 of the Tour at this point. After that, there’s only Paris left to go.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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