Tour de France stage 9 analysis: Pogacar first, the rest nowhere
Tadej Pogačar is so far ahead of the rest that they are now fighting for crumbs. What does that mean for the 2021 Tour?
Eclipse was the name of a famous British racehorse in the late 1700s, which won 18 races and retired undefeated. Eclipse was so dominant that his owner would bet on him using the phrase, “Eclipse first, the rest nowhere.”
There is a similar air of invincibility surrounding Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the 2021 Tour de France. Like a needle scratch across a dramatic and exciting piece of music, Pogačar has killed any sense of suspense created by the chaotic first week at the 2021 Tour de France. The Slovenian may not have won either of the mountain stages of the race’s Alpine weekend, but in putting significant time into his rivals with ease on both days he is looking unbeatable. He didn’t particularly need to drop the other general classification riders on the climb to Tignes, but it almost looked like he couldn’t help himself.
It is rare for a rider to crush the race with such ease. Pogačar’s domination is reminiscent of the five Tour wins of Miguel Indurain and Bernard Hinault when he was at his best; also of Laurent Fignon in 1984 and Jan Ullrich in 1997. Even Chris Froome in his best Tours used to fire one bullet and then sit on his lead. Pogačar has fired three, in the Laval TT, in Le Grand-Bornand and at Tignes. His lead is steadily and inexorably growing.
And so Pogačar’s serene progress through the 2021 Tour continues. Only two days ago we were speculating about the fallibility of his team when they dropped the ball early on stage 7 to Le Creusot. Yesterday he got around that perceived weakness by dropping everybody with more than 30 kilometres and two mountains to go. Today, UAE Emirates were in control, because everybody can see the writing on the wall. It’s clear to fans and the other general classification riders themselves that the race has changed. Pogačar is in control, and the rest are fighting for crumbs.
The UAE train is not quite as slick as Team Sky’s was in the previous decade, and it was sometimes more like a piece of old rural rolling stock than sleek TGV - Brandon McNulty took his eye off the road and slipped down a bank at one point, while Pogačar was still relatively isolated on the final climb. But they took control today in a way that suggests that everybody is now resigned to their fate. And the passing of the flame from Ineos Grenadiers to Pogačar as the dominant force in the Tour was given literal form as the British team attempted to impose themselves on the upper slopes of the Montée de Tignes when UAE’s final climbing support melted away. Geraint Thomas and Jonathan Castroviejo set up a train of their own ahead of Richard Carapaz, with Pogačar sitting behind. However, Carapaz’s eventual attack did nothing except set up the counter by Pogačar.
The GC battle behind the race leader, on the other hand, is evolving in unpredictable ways. The anarchy and chaos of the first week may have left Pogačar untouched, but the crashes and injuries that put Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Geraint Thomas, Miguel Ángel López (Movistar) and more out of the running have still left a few surprising names in the top 10. Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën) lies in second, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) in fourth and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-Premier Tech) in eighth.
O’Connor, of AG2R Citroën, was 8:13 down in 14th place at the start of the day but got into the break, then broke away from that with a few other riders, and for long stretches was the race leader on the road. In putting 6:02 into Pogačar and half a minute more into the other main GC riders, he elevated himself to 2:01 behind Pogačar but another 3:17 clear of third-placed Rigoberto Urán.
And behind O’Connor, only 54 seconds separate Urán in third and Lutsenko in eighth at 6:12. Everybody is really closely packed, except Pogačar, who is so far ahead that he might as well be in another race, and O’Connor, who has used imagination and aggressive riding to separate himself from the others. The Australian rider may pay for his efforts, and will not get as much leeway for the rest of the Tour, but considering how closely matched everybody else is, they will have to work hard to claw back those three minutes.
Apart from O’Connor, the rest of the top 10 appear to have accepted their fate. Pogačar can still lose the Tour, of course – the carnage of the opening few days taught us that anything can happen to anybody at this race. There are some potentially hazardous stages between the Alps and the Pyrenees – the current wind forecast for the Valence stage after the rest day looks benign, but on the Nîmes stage two days later the wind is forecast to blow across parts of the stage.
There are still question marks about Pogačar’s team, and the most optimistic fans may hold out hope of UAE Emirates getting distanced early in one or other of the less mountainous stages, much like Deceuninck-QuickStep last year on the stage to Lavaur when Bora-Hansgrohe split the field early in order to take advantage in the green jersey classification. Pogačar will remember that day well – he got caught out in the late crosswinds split later in the stage and conceded 1:21. That day last year will serve as a warning to Tadej Pogačar to be vigilant, but also as a reminder not to worry too much – it will take more than an 81-second split to put him out of the yellow jersey, and assuming he stays healthy, he can bank on taking more time at will in the four remaining high mountain stages and the final TT.
The two Alpine stages which Tadej Pogačar has used to crush his rivals were run off in terrible weather conditions with rain and cold battering the peloton. The forecast for Pogačar’s rivals in the days and weeks to come is similarly gloomy.
Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor.
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Edward Pickering is Procycling magazine's editor. He graduated in French and Art History from Leeds University and spent three years teaching English in Japan before returning to do a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism at Harlow College, Essex. He did a two-week internship at Cycling Weekly in late 2001 and didn't leave until 11 years later, by which time he was Cycle Sport magazine's deputy editor. After two years as a freelance writer, he joined Procycling as editor in 2015. He is the author of The Race Against Time, The Yellow Jersey Club and Ronde, and he spends his spare time running, playing the piano and playing taiko drums.
By Barry Ryan