The emergence of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič may have consigned Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious) to the role of Slovenian cycling's third man, but on Friday afternoon in Le Creusot, he soloed to victory on stage 7 of the Tour de France to complete a full set at the Grand Tours.
Mohorič has amassed a notable palmarès under the radar of his compatriots but the 26-year-old has never been one to worry unduly about his station. "I'm not driven so much by the results," he told Cyclingnews three years ago, amiably insisting that he raced in pursuit of enjoyment rather than stardom.
Earlier in his career, it was suggested that Mohorič's inherent humility and seemingly boundless willingness to work for others had stunted his development.
Perhaps it was typical that Mohorič's day of days would come on a stage when local headlines might still be drawn elsewhere. Jumbo-Visma's Roglič seemingly lost all hope of overall victory when he cracked in the final 20 kilometres, while some shortcomings in Pogačar's UAE Team Emirates squad appeared to be exposed on the Tour's longest stage.
"It's the biggest win of my career. The Tour is the biggest race and there were many top riders in the break," said Mohorič, who infiltrated the day's early break of 29 riders, which featured grandees such as yellow jersey Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
Rather than try to joust with that duo on the steep climbs in the finale, Mohorič opted to pre-empt after opening a gap with Brent Van Moer (Lotto Soudal) when they sprinted for the mountains points on the climb to Château-Chinon with 88km remaining.
"I didn't expect to go so early, I knew that when a break is so big with so many strong riders, you need to be clever and anticipate if you can," he said. "I was always trying to save energy. I always knew how much kilometres we had left to ride. I was pacing myself. I'm quite good at that."
Mohorič reached the WorldTour in 2013 at the age of just 19, having won the junior and under-23 world titles in successive seasons, but he only began to deliver on that potential at the top level when he won at Cuenca on the 2017 Vuelta a España. He then added a stage win at the Giro d'Italia and overall victory at the BinckBank Tour the following year.
"I won two World Championships as a junior and U23, but I don't think I was the strongest with my legs in those races. It was more that I tactically outplayed my opponents and I did that today a little bit, too," he said.
"I knew the other guys were going to play games in the final with the yellow jersey up for grabs, so I tried to go early. Physically I'm good at keeping a strong pace for a long time, but I miss something compared to the best riders in the world in short, brutal efforts."
Mohorič and Van Moer were joined by Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka-NextHash) in their raid off the front, and the Slovenian proceeded to drop his companions on the stiff ascent of Signal d'Uchon in the finale, eventually winning by 1:20.
"I was still sprinting for the mountains points and I still had some energy in my legs," he said. "I think I must have had 100 gels. I was trying to go all the way to the line. And with one kilometre, I realised I had won a stage of the Tour and that made me very proud."
Mohorič's victory is all the more remarkable considering his heavy crash on stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia, which forced him out of the race with a concussion. He returned to action at the Tour of Slovenia in June, before winning his national road race title ahead of Jan Polanc a week prior to the Tour.
"We all remember his 360-degree flip at the Giro," Bahrain Victorious directeur sportif Rolf Aldag said on Friday. "It's so well deserved because he's such a great teammate, and he knows that this was one of two stages on the Tour that really suited him."
Mohorič has made a habit of claiming such stages, having previously won on the longest days of the 2017 Vuelta and 2018 Giro. "It was full gas all day, which meant I don't think we even did six hours, so I don't think it counts as super long. It was super long in kilometres, but not in time," Mohorič said of a stage run in excess of 45.5 kph despite the distance and rugged terrain.
That long raid was also enough to net him the lead in the king of the mountains classification, and he vowed to try to defend the polka dot jersey in the Alps this weekend.
"I want to keep the jersey and I will try to get myself in the breakaway tomorrow or Sunday," said Mohorič, who moved ahead of his fellow countryman Pogačar on Friday and into fourth overall, 3:01 down on Van der Poel.
"I think Roglič and Pogačar are different riders, GC contenders," he smiled when asked to compare himself to his compatriots. "I'm a little too heavy for that and not powerful enough."
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