Final chapters of the 2020 Tour de France hardly could get any crueller than they did for Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) on Saturday, as the Slovenian lost the overall lead he had held so confidently for a fortnight, almost within sight of the Champs Elysées.
For the last two weeks, Jumbo-Visma had done virtually everything right, racking up the stage wins, keeping the yellow jersey safe, and Saturday’s time trial to the Planche des Belles Filles represented the last possible obstacle en route to victory.
Their one real challenger in the last week had been Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), but after the Alps, it seemed as if the race was effectively settled in Roglič’s favour.
It was true that Pogačar proved to be difficult to shift to beyond a distance of 57 seconds, but prior to the time trial, Roglič had constantly stated that he was happy with his pre-stage time gap on his young compatriot.
However, in one 36-kilometre time trial, that all changed. On a day that will long be remembered in cycling, just one image said it all - the stunned faces of teammates Wout Van Aert and Tom Dumoulin as they watched a giant TV screen at the finish while the seconds ticked down and the yellow jersey slipped away from Roglič’s grasp. Their ship was going down and there was nothing they could do about it.
With around 270 metres to go to the line, with Roglič sweating heavily and looking completely out of synch, the axe fell on the last shreds of the Jumbo-Visma rider’s lead, and it was all over.
When Roglič crossed the line in fifth place, 1:56 down and his yellow jersey ousted from his shoulders by his young Slovenian rival, he was so exhausted he had to slump to the side of the barriers. He was comforted by Tom Dumoulin before making a major sporting gesture of going across to Pogačar and giving him a hug of congratulations. But the yellow jersey was no longer his.
Last-day defeats like these are rare enough, with multiple comparisons immediately being made to Laurant Fignon and Greg LeMond in 1989. But having held the jersey for two weeks, and at the end of a stage which Roglič was widely expected to win, or at the very least finish strongly, this was an especially brutal defeat.
Appearing later in a press conference and giving measured, calm responses, Roglič cut a dignified figure in defeat, not even wavering when asked if behind his usual unflappable exterior he was feeling emotional about the debacle.
"I am disappointed, I will cry, I did already, but it was how it was. I want it to be a little different, but I cannot change it. I just need to go on," Roglič said. "It’s true I did not have the best day, Tadej was in a different world for me and he definitely deserves his win so really congrats to him.
"I just gave it everything and that's all I can say. I’m disappointed about the result but still I can be proud of the second place and that’s all there is."
'I didn't know I was going to have a bad day'
The truth was that Roglič was already in difficulty from well before the first time trial checkpoint, with a 10-second disadvantage even after less than five kilometres.
There was speculation that Roglič was playing a long game, waiting for the final ascent to turn the tables on his younger, perhaps more impetuous rival. But instead, the gap yawned open more and more and, after a somewhat unsteady and late bike change on the slopes of the Planches des Belles Filles, it was all over bar the shouting.
"I just obviously didn’t push enough. It was like that. I was just more and more without the power that I needed. I was giving everything to the end," Roglič said.
Asked about his new helmet, which he used for the first time on Saturday, he said drily, "Obviously it was not such a good idea. But let’s leave the materials, for now, because if you push more watts you can always go faster."
Roglič repeatedly stated, however, that it would be difficult for him to deliver a high-speed analysis of a Tour in which the tide of results had been flowing so strongly in his favour, but then suddenly ended up in reverse. He had no idea, he said, that his time trial could produce such a below-expectations result.
"I didn’t know I was going to have a bad day, and of course it’s better when you hear intermediate times, but I was just losing and losing. I was just hoping Tadej would have some hard moments so I was pushing myself to believe in myself in the whole parcours. In the end I was very far from it," he reflected.
Did he not regret he hadn’t ridden more aggressively earlier in the Tour, he was asked. "We need to analyse everything but for the moment it’s hard to think clearly. But on the other hand, it’s still better I got second rather than third."
The result is not just very hard on Roglič himself, but also on all his teammates, who have given the Slovenian massive support - and dominated climb after climb on the race - throughout. It also means that the Netherlands’ 40-year drought on a victory in the Tour de France, since Raleigh in 1980, for one of their teams remains unending.
"I feel sorry for all the guys because I didn't do it on purpose," he said. "I was fighting to do my best every day. But still I’m really proud of them, and the whole performance of the last three weeks.
"I don’t have really a clear plan and nothing in my head. I’m disappointed, more about the result because in my performance I gave it everything I had. My thanks, too, to all the Slovenian fans on the road, they also helped me throughout."
Before he was seen departing from the press centre with a sympathetic round of applause, there was time for Roglič to conclude that the Tour had not seen the last of him yet, but that it would take time to work out how to react from such a dramatic defeat.
"You always want to be better and faster, the motivation is there, and I still have some things to do to improve. But first of all, I need some time off and to think more clearly about how and what to do next," Roglič said.
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