Tadej Pogačar's stunning debut in the Tour de France continued apace on Sunday as the young Slovenian bested the top two pre-race favourites, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and new leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) for a prestigious stage win in a small group sprint in Laruns.
The UAE Team Emirates leader was the only GC contender to launch a full-scale successful attack on the final climb, the Col de Peyresourde, on Saturday, and on Sunday he tried it again on the last ascent of the Col de Marie-Blanque.
Although Bernal Roglič and Mikel Landa (Bahrain McLaren) could close him down, the 21-year-old had no problem staying with them on the descent into Laruns and then, after catching long-term breakaway rider Marc Hirschi (Team Sunweb), grabbing the stage win from a sprint and taking a vital ten-second time bonus too.
At 21, Pogačar is now the youngest rider to have won a stage in the Tour de France in the 21st century. But his ambitions go further than that in this race, with the overall victory also in his sights.
"Of course I'm thinking about GC, that's why I came here," said the Slovenian post-stage, who moved up two spots to seventh overall behind new leader Roglič, at 44 seconds, as if the question was almost superfluous of a rider taking part in his first Tour de France.
"I lost some time" – on stage 6 in the echelons when a rider crashed in front of him – "but that doesn't mean anything. The GC game has just started, and we will be expecting some more big differences in the coming days. And of course, I will try for a stage win as well."
Asked if he was the best climber of this year's GC contenders, Pogačar said he was not sure.
"Yesterday [Saturday] was one story, today was a different kind of game. Today the guys were at the same level as me, I couldn't shake them off and in the sprint, I gave it everything."
Riding the second Grand Tour of his short career, probably the moment where Pogačar showed his lack of experience the most on Sunday came on the summit of the Marie-Blanque, where he made, he admitted, "a little mistake" that almost saw him crash.
"I thought maybe I could drop everyone and outsprint them there, but actually Roglic was on my left and I was a little bit careless. I looked back, Roglič passed me and we touched wheels," he explained.
"It went okay from then on, we gained some time - but not much - but this is an amazing experience."
Asked about major rival and 2019 Tour de France winner Bernal, Pogačar admitted that the Colombian looked much better on Sunday than he had the previous day, but added that everybody in the front group – including Roglič – looked stronger. Just looking at their faces, he said, was enough to be sure that dropping them was not going to be straightforward.
As for racing the Tour de France itself, Pogačar admitted that he had not expected such a high level all around and that the stress involved in the Tour was "even higher than in the Vuelta. " But, he insisted, he was "happy so far."
The question of whether Pogačar can repeat his Vuelta a España result of 2019, with three stage wins and a third place overall on his Grand Tour debut, is now no longer a hypothetical one.
It is more whether he can battle for yellow when the race returns to the high mountains next Friday. And at the moment, all the signs are he could well be giving both Bernal and Roglič a real run for their money.
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