For the second day in a row, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) took back time on his arch-rival Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) at Itzulia Basque Country, beating his countryman to the line on the hilltop finish at Ermaulde and taking back four seconds to boot.
Punching his fist in the air as he roared across the finish line atop the brutal three-kilometre climb showed how much the win, his fifth of the season, mattered to the young Slovenian, even as Roglič shadowed him close behind.
The victory enabled both to distance their other GC rivals, strengthening their overall positions, with the younger Slovenian cutting Roglič's GC advantage from 24 seconds to 20.
However, Pogačar denied that the race has now come down to a two-way fight between himself and the Roglič in what is their first stage racing duel since the Tour de France last year.
"Others have good legs and they will be important in the rest of the race, we have to be careful of everybody," he told reporters after the finish.
"But it was a super-important win, and we will see what happens in the next three days.
"The gap between me and Primož is slowly getting smaller now, although it's still quite big for three stages. I'll just have to keep fighting."
Pogačar launched multiple attacks on the finishing climb, both before, during and after Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) had tried to move away but been pulled back, but each time Roglič shadowed him closely.
The two eased back a little several times during the hill, allowing a regrouping of the race's top climbers, but each time one of the two Slovenians re-upped the pace, the others quickly faded behind again.
Once a definitive gap had been established by Roglič 500 metres out, a late, swift lunge to the front allowed the the 24-year-old to enter the final 300 metre toboggan in first place, one he would hold to the finish.
Pogačar admitted that having inside information about the climb and checking it out earlier today was critical to his success. UAE Team Emirates features several Basques, he pointed out, including Joxean Fernandez Matzxin, his sports director with whom he exchanged celebratory high-fives after the stage.
"Luckily we have a lot of Basque people on the team and we went to look at the finish this morning," he said. "If I had not known the finish I would not have won it."
On a day that had stayed tense throughout as rival teams to the race leader fought hard to bring back an early break – presumably to ensure the bonus seconds were still in play and the stage win remained up for grabs, too – Pogačar said that there had barely a moment to catch his breath all day.
"It was a very nervous stage, only a little bit relaxed right at the start, but once the breakaway went, it got very stressful," he said. "That finish was really explosive, too, although I was very happy with the way I rode and now I can look forward to the next few days."
After the second major sort-out following the opening time trial, the race looks increasingly like a two-way battle, but as Pogačar says, other riders may yet make an impact on GC.
His American teammate Brandon McNulty – in third place at 30 seconds – offers a second option for UAE Team Emirates, while Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), cannot be ruled out of the GC fight just yet, with each man lying between 39 seconds and a minute back.
After Wednesday's performance, though, Pogačar looks like the biggest threat between Roglič and a second Itzulia Bassque Country win in four years.
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