An already exceptional Grand Tour debut for Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) gained even further brilliance on Saturday as the 20-year-old Slovenian stormed away to a lone victory in the final stage of the Vuelta a España.
Pogačar's victory in the Sierra de Gredos, forged with a 40-kilometre solo attack, not only netted him a third stage win in this year's Vuelta a España after Andorra and Los Machucos but also propelled him up two spots into third place overall in what will almost certainly be the final Vuelta a Espana general classification.
With just one largely ceremonial stage remaining, Pogačar's latest win has given him the near-definitive overall lead in the Best Young Rider competition.
According to the Vuelta's official website, winning at the Plataforma de Gredos also makes the young Slovenian the first rider aged under 21 to take three stage wins in a Grand Tour since Giuseppe Saronni in the 1978 Giro d'Italia.
After what was arguably the most spectacular lone mountain performance of this year's Vuelta, Pogačar said he "had never expected to be able to do something like this, win three stages and get on the podium in this race. But it's happened, and I'm really happy about it."
Pogačar's advantage of 1:40 at the top of the Peña Negra, the final first category climb of the Vuelta a Espana, all but remained intact through to the Plataforma de Gredos despite Movistar's keeping the collective accelerator jammed firmly to the floor in a frantic chase behind.
At the summit of Gredos, Pogačar's advantage had shrunk by just eight seconds, forcing Valverde to chase in person on the final climb, to ensure that even if Quintana's third place was no longer savable, Pogačar could not push the World Champion out of second.
Asked how he had managed to hold on for an hour-long breakaway when virtually at the end of his first-ever experience of a three week Grand Tour, Pogačar said: "I had good support on the road from the Slovenian fans and really good support in the team car."
"[Director Joxean Fernandez] Matxin was really encouraging me and motivating me all the way and he also kept me informed about the gap. The most important thing was how much he yelled at me to go for the win on the final climb.
"It was amazing getting that level of support and it was full gas all the way, it was incredible."
Asked why he looked so happy out on the road if he was having to ride so hard, Pogačar denied he was smiling. "That was my suffering face, I was holding in my emotions," he revealed.
Where it may be harder for Pogačar to keep his feelings to himself will be when he stands on the final podium in Madrid alongside Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who collectively outstrip Pogačar by a total of 29 years, on Sunday evening.
"We need to still come to the finish tomorrow [Sunday] and if that happens, it will be pretty incredible stand next to them in a Grand Tour," Pogačar said. "I can't begin to imagine how that will feel."
Quite apart from how he will feel looking down on the crowds from the podium in Madrid is one question. But the other longer-term issue concerning his meteoric rise to Grand Tour success is how he will handle the much greater level of expectation that will now surround him.
"I will be the same that I have always been," Pogačar answered simply and straightforwardly. "I won't allow the pressure to ruin me."
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