UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar laid down the law with a vengeance on the first mountain stage of the Tour de France on Saturday but Ineos Grenadiers team management continue to insist that they will keep fighting and that the race is far from over.
Prior to the Tour, Ineos were widely viewed as the strongest team in terms of multiple GC contenders and their long experience at Tour de France and Grand Tour success was also held to be to their advantage.
But crashes and injuries ended Geraint Thomas of repeating his two Tour podiums on Saturday and for all Richard Carapaz tried to hold on to Pogačar’s wheel on the Col de Romme, he too ended up bowing to the inevitable.
Team Principal Dave Brailsford told Cyclingnews and Wielerflits after the finish that his team would nonetheless fight on because, “you never know what is around the corner.” But he recognised too that Pogačar had turned in an exceptional ride.
“I think we’ve all watched cycling for a long time and it’s rare you see a performance like that and all credit to him,” Brailsford said post-stage, in one of the few occasions that he has spoken to the media in recent times.
"He's on a different level to everybody else. He was quite brave to go where he did and you can only stand back and admire that."
As for what that implied for his team Brailsford argued, "the same as for everybody else. You've just got to keep fighting.
"I said before the race this was going to be about expecting the unexpected, and it's been an incredible race, such a hard day today [Saturday] and yesterday. If everybody keeps racing at this intensity then who is going to be left standing in two and a half or three weeks time?"
There could have been little doubt about it after Saturdays' stage results but Brailsford confirmed in any case that for Ineos-Grenadiers Carapaz is now the overall leader for the Tour de France.
"He's riding the strongest at this moment in time and he's brave. He tried yesterday and tried again today and I like that. He'll need to manage his effort but he has that attitude of going on the offensive and we'll keep on doing that."
Carapaz finished 13th on the stage at 4:09. He has gained places on the overall ranking rising from 12th to sixth overall, and as non-GC contenders fall away from the ranking in the days to come, he should rise even further in the classification even if he does not go on the attack again.
However, his time deficit to Pogačar of 5:01 is the sort that would be called considerable at the end of a Tour de France, let alone after eight days. However, Brailsford was adamant that this was not the end of the road regarding the overall classification.
If matters had been bad for Richard Carapaz, who did not stop at the finish line to talk to reporters, they were far worse for Geraint Thomas. The writing had already been on the wall on stage 7 for Thomas, but things fell apart on the first climb for the Welshman. He finally finished in the gruppetto more than 35 minutes down.
Carapaz remains in the fray, albeit at a distance that will call for a huge upset in the race for him to have a chance of winning, while Brailsford said that while he had yet to talk directly to Thomas, he expected he would continue in the race.
As things stand, for nearly a decade of domination of the Tour de France as well as a recent victory in the Giro d'Italia, for the second year running Ineos-Grenadiers face a considerable struggle to conquer cycling's top event. But Brailsford was adamant that quite apart from the distance beween here and Paris, it is far from game over.
"I think he [Pogačar] is certainly the strongest rider in the race but there's a very long way to go. As we've seen so far, all sorts of things are happening this year." He cited the case that "It was meant to be a Roglič-Pogačar [Tour rivalry] but Roglič's out already and Pogačar's dominating.
"It's very exciting and it feels like we're in unknown territory so we'll keep our wits about us. That was a fantastic performance but you don't know what's round the next corner. You don't drop your guard and you keep on challenging."
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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