With four stages remaining in the 2022 Tour de France, two-time champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has just under 500 kilometres left on which to grasp back over two minutes on maillot jaune Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).
The battle for a three-peat in France will be played out over 184km of those roads including Thursday's summit finish to Hautacam and the final time trial two days later. At the conclusion of stage 17 to Peyragudes, Pogačar took four seconds on his Danish rival, a time bonus separating first and second across the line.
To follow in the wheel tracks of Bobet, Anquetil, Merckx, Indurain, and Froome and win three Tour titles in a row, the 23-year-old will be required to conjure a comeback even beyond the spectacular denouement of the race two years ago in the Vosges.
On La Planche des Belles Filles, Pogačar overcame a 57-second time gap to Jumbo-Visma's Primož Roglič, putting 1:56 into yellow to win his first title. To take a third, he'll have to find 2:18 on the Aubisque, Spandelles, Hautacam, and the 40.7km test in Rocamadour.
Pogačar celebrated a third stage win of the Tour – the ninth of his career – atop Peyragudes while his UAE Team Emirates squad struck a celebratory but determined tone beyond the finish line.
"This is the Tour de France. We need to be concentrated and we need to believe until the end," team principal Mauro Gianetti told Cyclingnews while walking back to the team bus, congratulating staff members as he did so.
"We know the situation, but we are here, we enjoy day by day. Today was a great show for cycling, I think and to see this battle between two great champions like Vingegaard and Tadej, I think is amazing for everybody, for all those passionate about cycling.
"Vingegaard is strong. We knew that. It's not news," he added. "You have to be realistic, and it's an important gap. But at the Tour, you have to keep believing until the end."
Andrej Hauptmann, team directeur sportif, said similar, noting that Pogačar will keep fighting to the end of the race, something he has insisted ever since his surprising collapse on the fearsome Col de Granon a week ago.
"We will do everything, but every stage is another battle. We will try, and we'll see what we will be able to do until Paris," said the Slovenian.
"He's confident he will put 100% like always. He will go full gas and he doesn't think so much about the gap. He always tries in any situation in which he finds himself to do his best and not think about how big the gap is."
Down to four but showing their strength
The opening two stages of the Pyrenean triple-header have been testing days for UAE Team Emirates, the team losing Marc Soler to illness on Tuesday's stage to Foix as the Spaniard battled on to the finish outside the time cut.
The stage also spelt the end of the race for key climbing domestique Rafał Majka, who sustained a thigh injury after his chain broke on stage 16. He tested himself on the rollers before the start of stage 17 but couldn't continue.
The loss of the two men saw the already depleted team down to just four men, one of them Marc Hirschi, who – after replacing COVID-postive Matteo Trentin in the squad – has endured a tough Tour having suffered a COVID-19 infection of his own last month.
Despite the team's strength in numbers having been halved since the Grand Départ in Denmark, Danish time triallist Mikkel Bjerg and American climber Brandon McNulty stepped up in a big way on the road to Peyragudes. The pair led the way up the major climbs of the day, with McNulty even finishing third some 95 seconds up on podium battler Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers).
"I think today, the team showed their character, showed their ambition," Gianetti told Cyclingnews. "Three riders of the same age – Tadej, Brandon, Mikkel – they've known each other since they were juniors, they believe in this Tour.
"Today, Tadej finalised an incredible job made by all the teammates and especially by Mikkel and Brandon. That was amazing."
McNulty said after the stage that he worked on the front some way beyond what had been planned out on the road.
The American bagged the combativity prize for the day having worked on the front of the penultimate climb at the Col d'Azet, led the elite group of himself, Pogačar, and Vingegaard down the descent, and then made the pace until the final 500 metres of Peyragudes, too.
"It was an all-out effort, but it was really special," he said. "The plan was – [Pogačar] told me to do 15 minutes full gas on the penultimate climb. So, in my head I was like 'OK, 15 minutes, I can do that'. It took a little longer than that, but it was fine.
"I was hoping in my head when we hit 500 to go, that maybe they'll be nice and follow me to the line. But there's no gifts in this sport so I was still happy we could win the stage with the team and Tadej."
Bjerg, who had been doing the pulling in the peloton for a long stint earlier in the day, explained UAE's strategy, which saw the team outperformed the seemingly infallible Jumbo-Visma, the Dutch squad having suffered problems of their own after losing Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk.
"Tadej said try to keep the breakaway close because we could go for the stage," he said. "We knew it would be hard to drop Jonas by two minutes. So, the first goal of today was to win the stage with Tadej. I'm just really proud that we managed to pull it off.
"Like today, we will try to decide what should happen in the race and we try to pull it off," he added, referring to Hautacam. "We try again tomorrow. But yeah, it's never easy to win a bike race.
"Everything is possible. Tadej sadly had one bad day and lost the yellow jersey. We just need to put on the pressure and then we see if Jonas has a bad day. I think Tadej has good legs and the rest of the guys here all feel confident and good that we can try to do something tomorrow."
Majka was also on hand to talk to the press following the stage's conclusion. For the Pole, who had been among the most impressive climbing domestiques of the race, the emotion was an understandable mixture of frustration and celebration.
"It's not so nice to spend time in the bus and watch it on the television," he said. "I cannot ride, especially when I feel good. But today winning the stage is more important and Tadej is still second in GC and he's really strong.
"When I see the road, the climbs I really wanted to support the guys climbing and especially when I feel good. But this is the sport. You cannot change nothing when this happens. But I'm happy today with four guys we made an impressive race and won the stage.
"You never know," he concluded when asked if Pogačar will win a third Tour. "But for sure he'll try."
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