Just one day after a brutally difficult ride to the Col du Portet, Spain's top Tour de France contender Enric Mas (Movistar) turned in a much stronger performance on Luz Ardiden but it still wasn't enough for a stage 18 win.
Together with Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma, Mas was one of the three GC contenders who remained in contact with race leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) when the Slovenian placed a surging attack 3.3 kilometres from the line.
Visibly struggling at the end of the line at some points, Mas bravely made two brief digs off the front when there was a slight drop in the front group's pace close to the summit finish. However, each time Pogačar closed it down, and Mas was unable to continue the longstanding tradition of Spanish victories, five out of a possible eight to date, at Luz Ardiden.
"I think today I was where I should have been," Mas said in a statement later released by his team's press department. "Unfortunately, the two days in the race when I was not up to my best level counted for more."
At Luz Ardiden, "I tried to stay with the other favourites and attack in the final. I think they hesitated a little and started watching each other. But once Pogačar shifted down a gear, it was clear he could come after me and get past me."
Mas said there were points when he thought he could win, above all when his sports director, Jose Luis Arrieta, radioed through to tell him he was alone on the front. But Arrieta's information all too briefly was overtaken by a rampaging Pogačar.
Asked about Pogačar's determination to grab as many stage wins as possible, Mas said he did not feel it was incorrect.
"His team's done a really good job for him and it's logical he wanted to give them a reward."
Fourth at 13 seconds, Mas has gained a spot overall and moved into sixth after Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) cracked badly.
But with more than four minutes between himself and third-placed Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), his pre-race objective of a podium in Paris looks all but impossible. The chances of Spain taking its first stage win in the Tour since Omar Fraile in 2018, too, look increasingly scant.
"I wanted a top three overall here, and at the moment I can't be satisfied," he admitted.
"But I'll try and finish off the Tour as well as possible, and then I'll rest up a little and start building for the Vuelta a España as best I can."
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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