It took Tadej Pogačar just nine kilometres as he came storming through the first time check on the stage 5 time trial course, to lay down a marker in the reclamation of his Tour de France title. The flat 27km parcours in Laval couldn't have been more different to the uphill route at La Planche des Belles Filles where he sensationally upended the Tour less than a year ago, but dressed in the same white skinsuit as the best young rider in the race, it looked like little else had changed in the last 10 months, as Pogačar produced a time that made everyone sit up and take notice. He was already 11 seconds quicker than European TT champion Stefan Küng only a third of the way through the course, and went on to win the stage with a result that could well define this year’s Tour in a similar way to his performance last year.
The Tour de France that will roll out of Tours on stage 6 already feels very different to the one we’ve seen over the first five days, with the general classification riders having their first real opportunity to show their cards in the TT. And while Pogačar might not have quite wrestled the yellow jersey from the shoulders of Mathieu van der Poel, in taking the stage victory he widened his advantage over his rivals, and made the first major move towards retaining his title in Paris. The question now is, with more than two weeks still to race, how does anyone stop him?
The injuries sustained by Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas in crashes on stage 3 were clearly not part of Jumbo-Visma or Ineos Grenadiers’ pre-race plan, yet, regardless, they now sit 1:48 and 1:54 respectively behind Pogačar, having ceded more time to him. Like Pogačar, both riders were expected to revel in the two TTs offered up by ASO this year, and use it as a basis to build their challenge for the overall win. Having dropped significant time in the first round, they will have to look elsewhere for gains in a way they might not have considered beforehand.
Indeed, Ineos’s plan had been to use their brute strength to win yellow, bringing a superstar line up packed with grand tour winners and stage racing talent to use their multiple options to overwhelm the competition. Just five days in, Richard Carapaz is their highest placed rider, but even he dropped to ninth having lost 1:44 to Pogačar - a time loss that was expected but one that was surely hoped to be considerably smaller. Richie Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart’s GC aspirations were effectively ended after being held up by a crash on stage 1, yet Porte lost another 55 seconds and Geoghegan Hart 5:10 in the TT, and they’re now way down the rankings. They can still provide effective support in the mountains, but if they’re out of GC contention it limits Ineos’s tactical choices - are Porte and Geoghegan Hart more use protecting Carapaz and Thomas, or trying to force Pogačar to react by going clear up the road? With Thomas clearly below par after dislocating his shoulder on stage 3, Ineos’ four-pronged method of attack is no longer an option.
Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma look in a better position to take the challenge to Pogačar, and against the clock Roglič appeared to cope better with his injuries than Thomas, salvaging his losses at just 44 seconds. Their ace card could well be Jonas Vingegaard, however, the young Danish climber making his Tour debut, who finished third in the TT behind Pogačar and Küng to move up to eighth overall. Most notably, the 24-year-old was runner up in Itzulia Basque Country this spring, behind his team leader, in a race where the duo got the better of Pogačar by isolating him from his UAE team in the final stage to take the victory.
The nearest GC challenger is currently Rigoberto Urán, 1:29 back in seventh overall, with the likes of Wilco Kelderman, Enric Mas, David Gaudu and Nairo Quintana all dropping places. Miguel Ángel López and Guillaume Martin are already languishing over five minutes back.
With a 30km time trial to come on the penultimate day, where Pogačar could theoretically, on this performance, gain even similar chunks of time, his rivals could easily need to gain three to four minutes over him in the mountain stages or if there are any chances on flat stages.
Pogačar is not quite yet invincible, and his UAE Emirates team have taken almost as many beatings as others - Brandon McNulty was the latest to hit the deck midway through the TT, then finishing dead last. If multiple riders and teams coordinate against him, and he is isolated, his advantage could considerably be pulled back.
Still, after five days of racing, Tadej Pogačar has made his first major statement and if anyone wants to beat him to the yellow jersey in Paris, they might need to go back to the drawing board to do it.
Sophie Hurcom is Procycling magazine's deputy editor.
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