They say the yellow jersey can see Paris from the top of the final summit finish of the Tour de France, but in truth, Tadej Pogačar could probably already see it from the moment he disappeared into the mist on the Col de Romme on stage 8.
The outcome of this Tour has never been in doubt since and Pogačar has now hammered home the point on two successive mountain top finishes in the Pyrenees, winning in yellow atop the Col du Portet on Wednesday and again at Luz Ardiden on stage 18.
Pogačar's victory at Luz Ardiden was a near replica of the previous afternoon's win. When UAE Team Emirates companion Rafal Majka swung off with a little over 3km remaining, Pogačar loosened the rivets in the yellow jersey group with a searing acceleration that only four riders could follow.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) had the strength to take over from Pogačar on the upper reaches of the climb and then Enric Mas (Movistar) had the temerity to attack twice in the final kilometre before the maillot jaune grew tired of the company. He ripped clear with 400m to go to claim the stage victory, freewheeling across the line two seconds ahead of Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos).
It's Pogačar's Tour and everybody else just gets to ride in it.
After taking a seat in the press conference truck, however, the 22-year-old downplayed the notion that his inevitable second successive overall victory marked the formal beginning of a new epoch in Tour history.
"I don't consider myself as the 'Pogačar era,' that's just stupid in my opinion," Pogačar said. "For sure a new generation is coming. We see so many youngsters stepping up to the highest level. I think it's a nice era of cycling now and we will see a lot of battles between everybody. It's going to be a great next decade."
In the here and now, Pogačar carries a lead of 5:45 over Vingegaard into the final three days of racing, an advantage that he will surely only extend further in Saturday's time trial to Saint-Émilion. With the race long since won, Pogačar had no need to chase time bonuses atop Luz Ardiden, but his patronage of this Tour has altogether more in common with the authoritarian regimes of Merckx and Hinault than the more benign dictatorship of Indurain.
"It was full gas racing today," Pogačar said by way of explanation. "Ineos were pressing on the Tourmalet, even though we were setting the pace before then. It was full gas racing and in the end, you see we were battling. In the end, if I have the legs, I always try to go. Like I said before, it's all about having fun and I had a great time."
Pogačar's stage victory also sees him move into the lead in the king of the mountains competition, meaning that he will be presented with three jerseys on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening – yellow, white and polka dot. "Fans go crazy for the polka dot jersey and it's super nice to have it, but we never thought about it," Pogačar said. "Yellow is priority. It's always priority, what comes with it is just a big bonus."
Bahrain and Gianetti
The responsibility of being a spokesman for the peloton also comes with wearing the yellow jersey. On Wednesday evening, the Bahrain Victorious team hotel and vehicles were searched by French police as part of preliminary investigations into an alleged doping offence.
In a statement on Thursday, the Marseille prosecutor's office said an investigation was opened on July 3 into the possible "acquisition, transportation, possession and importing of a prohibited substance or method for use by an athlete without justification by members of Team Bahrain Victorious, currently in action at the 2021 Tour de France."
"I don't know what to comment about this, actually," Pogačar said when asked for his reaction to the raid and its implications. "It's something completely strange, but I guess it's just one more control to see that nobody's hiding anything. I think the result of the raid was good, and I don't know how to comment more about this. We just found out in the morning. It's strange. It's one more thing to control the sport."
Pogačar's own dominance has been questioned during this Tour, with the yellow jersey previously explaining that he was unwilling to release his power data lest it hand a competitive advantage to his rivals.
At Luz Ardiden on Thursday, Pogačar was asked to comment on the track record of UAE Team Emirates team principal Mauro Gianetti, who was manager of Saunier Duval at the 2008 Tour de France when Riccardo Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli tested positive for EPO. The Swiss was also manager of Geox-TMX when Juan José Cobo won the 2011 Vuelta a España, a result later stricken from the records due to biological passport violations.
"I can only speak for myself, but if I need to say something, that was in the past," Pogačar said. "When I met Mauro, he was really great to me and a super good person. I believe what is in the past is in the past, and this new cycling is a way more beautiful sport than it was, for sure. I can only speak for myself."
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