Tour de France leader Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) stamped his authority on the race during stage 17 on Wednesday with an imperious summit victory on what he considers the "hardest stage of this year".
In a victory replete with symbolism, Pogačar claimed his first road stage win of the 2021 Tour pointing at the team name on his maillot jaune as he crossed the mist-enshrouded finish line of the Col du Portet just ahead of Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos-Grenadiers).
Pogačar’s winning gesture was intended, he later said, to remind the world of the importance of his team’s support. But given the colour of his jersey, it couldn’t help but simultaneously emphasise who was in yellow as well.
However, the Slovenian was adamant afterwards that despite his and the team’s show of mountain strength, not to mention him stretching an already considerable lead by another 20 seconds, the Tour was far from finished.
“The race is only over on the last lap of the finishing straight of the Champs Élysées,” he said, “because in cycling there can be a lot of bad luck. You never know what can happen and you can only touch wood.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow [Thursday], it’s the last super hard day in the mountains. Then hopefully Friday will be a calmer day before the time trial. Then we’ll see. But for now I don’t like to think about it.”
On a day when UAE Team Emirates had delivered their strongest collective climbing performance to date in this year’s Tour, Pogačar did not deal out such a devastating individual blow in the mountains as he had done in the Alps.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. After UAE had kept the pace high for half of the Col du Portet, Pogačar’s first surging attack eight kilometres from the line easily shredded the group to just himself and the other three leading GC names, Vingegaard, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo), and Carapaz.
The next sustained acceleration by the Slovenian saw Urán, second overall, throw in the towel, squeezing the lead group to three of the top four on GC. Carapaz visibly suffered and failed to take any turns at all, but the more the trio distanced Urán, the more he, Vingegaard and Pogačar consolidated their likely position as the top three overall in Paris.
Asked to describe the brutally difficult Portet, at 2,215 metres above sea level the 2021 Tour’s highest summit finish, Pogačar called it “a never ending story. You do the first part, then you turn right in a small village and hit a bad road, it never finishes. It’s super hard, and it has that high altitude too. It was a nice test, even though it was one of the hardest days.”
Explaining why he was apparently smiling on much of the ascent if he was finding it such tough going, he said, “that’s an expression I have when I suffer. Maybe I really smiled when I passed my girlfriend and family with about five kilometres to go, that’s when I felt some pure joy.”
Having sat at the back and grimaced for most of the eight kilometres of the Portet’s upper slopes, Carapaz suddenly found new strength close to the summit, in a long drive that briefly gapped Vingegaard. But while it was suggested to Pogačar that Carapaz had not acted fairly by failing to work then attacking so late, he played down any idea that he was upset by the Ecuadorian’s strategy. On the contrary, he’d seen it coming.
“I was more or less setting the pace because you have to be careful in those situations. When there are three guys up there everybody wants to wins. So I was expecting something like this [Carapaz attack].
“I don’t have any problem with people attacking. It was a great race and I enjoyed it today. Everybody had a chance.”
Why Pogačar felt this was his own best opportunity to win, he said, it was that after several stages where the early break had been too big to pull back. “Today was perfect. We could control the move because there were only six guys in front. I knew that if we didn’t let too big a gap go out we could pull them back,” he said.
“I wanted to win the most difficult stage of this year’s race. My team worked so hard, they gave it everything and I wanted to win with the yellow jersey on my shoulders. That makes me proud.”
He had pointed at his team name on the finish line, he said, to thank UAE collectively for their hard work. “Even if the TV cameras don’t show how much they do in the early part of the stages, they’re putting in a big effort all the time. Sometimes one guy has a bad day, sometimes another one. But together we’ve kept strong all the way.”
He paid tribute, too, to Vingegaard for stepping up to the breach in Jumbo-Visma once Primož Roglič had crashed out. The Dane looks set for at least a podium finish in Paris after Urán cracked and the other GC favourites, bar Carapaz, previously so close together, finally split apart on the Portet.
“He came out and showed his character, he’s been racing fantastically,” Pogačar said. “Jumbo-Visma had all that bad luck, but in future I’m sure he can be a Tour de France winner pretty soon."
But after Wednesday’s performance on the Pyrenees by Pogačar, there was virtually no doubt in anybody’s mind who would be winning the Tour de France even sooner.
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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