After the feats of strength came the test of nerve. Tadej Pogačar had already showcased his physical attributes on this Volta ao Algarve by winning atop the Alto do Fóia and then extending his overall lead in the time trial the next day, but a frantic concluding leg to the Alto do Malhão called for a cool head as much as for raw power.
Pogačar, it seems, has both qualities in abundance. Mindful that his 29-second overnight lead was unlikely to dissolve in the space of the explosive, 3km climb to the finish, Pogačar’s rivals looked to examine his resolve from further out as the race snaked through the fragrant hills of the Serra do Caldeirão, but the Slovenian proved equal to the task.
The penultimate climb to Vermelhos was appropriately named. Coming just 20km from the finish, it might as well have been marked in red in the road book, such was the likelihood of on onslaught on Pogačar’s yellow jersey.
David de la Cruz (Team Sky) kick-started the offensive on the ascent, and the move’s danger grew exponentially when second-placed Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) bridged across with Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep), with Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) later joining them.
Andersen’s resolute pace-making saw the move pass the early break, jettisoning De la Cruz in the process, and with 10 kilometres remaining, their advantage over the Pogačar group was touching one minute, making the Dane the virtual yellow jersey. With only two teammates for company and no help coming from other quarters, Pogačar’s once firm clutch on overall victory had loosened considerably.
"I panicked a bit, but I knew that [Simone] Petilli and [Valerio] Conti were still good, so it was pretty OK for us," Pogačar said. "It was really hard when the contenders were attacking but my teammates were so strong, I had confidence in them. But it was full gas, I would say, since kilometre 120, and already before it had been a pretty hard day."
By the foot of the final haul up the Malhão, Pogačar found himself more than minute down on Andersen, but while the tempo up front dropped once the gradient began to bite, accelerations from Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Wout Poels (Team Sky) saw a decided increase in urgency in the yellow jersey group.
Pogačar did what he could to match Mas on the stiffest slopes of the Malhão and then kept the Catalan’s rear wheel in sight as the road levelled off in the final kilometre, mindful that each pedal stroke was eating into the flagging Andersen’s advantage. The Slovenian crested the summit in 6th place on the stage, 18 seconds down on the stage winner Stybar, which sufficed to retain the yellow jersey by 14 seconds from Andersen.
"When I crossed the line, I didn't know the gap but after they told me I won, so it was really emotional," Pogačar said. "It's incredible, I can't describe how happy I am to win."
Winner of the Tour de l'Avenir last September, Pogačar is in his first season at WorldTour level, and, for all his undoubted talent, few could have expected him to make such an impact in his opening weeks as a professional. 13th place overall at the Tour Down Under hinted that he was making a fast adjustment to the paid ranks, but his participation at the Volta ao Algarve came about partly by chance, as he was drafted in to replace an injured rider.
Pogačar was elevated to the role of UAE Team Emirates leader on the race when Fabio Aru was held up by the mass crash on stage 1, and he lived up to the responsibility by winning the next day on the Alto da Fóia. After his cool display on Sunday afternoon, he emulates fellow countryman Primoz Roglic as a winner of the Volta ao Algarve.
"I know Roglic, he is a really good guy, and it was amazing that I could repeat the same victory that he did two years ago," he said. "Cycling in Slovenia is growing and there is a lot of work going on with young guys and I think we will see more Slovenian riders coming through."
Despite the unexpected triumph, Pogačar’s preordained race programme is unlikely to change considerably in the coming weeks. A brace of one-day outings in Belgium and some testing on the track are scheduled for March, while the May’s Tour of California is a medium-term objective.
"I think the team has been very careful with me. We already had a good plan before this, and I think they look after me very well," said Pogačar. "After this race I have to re-set my mind and start working on my training and focus on the other goals."