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Tadej Pogacar: Col du Portet stage is hardest day of entire Tour de France

Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) remains in yellow after stage 16 of the Tour de France
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) remains in yellow after stage 16 of the Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The attempted ambush came very late on stage 16 of the Tour de France and though Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) was surprised, he wasn't caught out.

First Guillaume Martin and then Wout van Aert accelerated on the Côte d'Aspret-Sarrat, seven kilometres from the finish in Saint-Gaudens, but the yellow jersey and all of the podium contenders were part of the small group that formed over the summit.

The yellow jersey group reached Saint-Gaudens almost 14 minutes behind stage winner Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), but that didn't stop them disputing the sprint for 13th place with an intensity that contrasted with the air of détente earlier in the stage.

Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) jumped first on the slight rise to the line, and his enthusiasm proved infectious, with Pogačar himself eventually climbing from the saddle to contest the honours with Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).

"I don't know," Pogačar laughed when asked why the podium contenders had felt moved to sprint. "I didn't even know why we went full gas on the last fourth category climb. I just was following the wheels and we went full gas to the finish. Then everybody just started sprinting and I also did a sprint. It's good to have a little kicker in the end to open the legs and just to test if they're still good. It was fun."

Tuesday's trek from Andorra to Saint-Gaudens was the least demanding of the Tour's final triptych of Pyrenean stages, the ascents of the Col de Porte, Col de la Core and Col de Portet-d'Aspet still notionally provided Pogačar's rivals with a chance to isolate him from his teammates. Yet despite a high-octane opening, the GC men were content to allow UAE Team Emirates control affairs until that late selection on the run-in to the finish.

"For sure, they're focusing on tomorrow and not today, because today was not the profile to suit big GC gaps," said Pogačar, who carries an overall lead of 5:18 into Wednesday's summit finish on the Col du Portet.

"Tomorrow for sure, everyone will try because it's the hardest day in the Tour. If someone feels super good, they can make a difference to the guy who feels super bad. We'll do everything we can to defend the yellow."

Pogačar's overwhelming individual dominance on this Tour has seen observers look to his team in search of the faintest evidence of an Achilles heel. The Slovene's key mountain lieutenant, Rafał Majka, has been struggling with the after-effects of a heavy crash.

"He can only sleep in one position at night, for sure he's not at 100 per cent," explained Pogačar, who has often been isolated on the final climb. Yet none of Pogačar's most obvious rivals have clawed back so much as a second since he took control of the race in the Alps.

"A lot was said against our team, how weak or strong we are, but actually we are the best team here for sure," Pogačar said. "Other teams didn't employ their best tactics yet. We haven't seen much action from other teams. Maybe they're saving themselves for tomorrow.

"EF pushed at one moment today, but it was downhill, so that was strange. Most of the time the UAE team was pulling on the front. We were making the pace and controlling the bunch."

Portet calling

At the start in Andorra on Tuesday, Chris Froome spoke for many when asked to assess the likelihood of the maillot jaune changing hands in the final week. "If Pogačar can stay on the bike then it's over," Froome said. "With a time trial coming, he's got this in the bag unless something catastrophic happens to him."

Notionally, calamity could befall Pogačar on the back-to-back summit finishes on the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden. In reality, the final mountain stages of this Tour are more likely to be the scene of an extended coronation.

Once Pogačar went to places no one else could reach on the Col de Romme on stage 8, this Tour has effectively been beyond the grasp of anybody else.

Stage 17 brings the peloton over the Col de Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Azet ahead of the 16km haul from Saint-Lary-Soulan up the Col du Portet, reckoned by many to be the most demanding ascent of the entire race.

"I don't know how I'm going to prepare, what's done is done. I cannot change the legs for tomorrow, but we're going to ride as hard as we can because it's a difficult climb in the end. I think it's going to be a big GC battle," said Pogačar. "I think it's going to be a big GC battle."

Pogačar's lone moment of weakness on this Tour to date came on the ascent of Mont Ventoux on stage 11, when he was distanced by Vingegaard two kilometres from the summit.

Those travails seemed to underscore Pogačar's previous admission that he struggled with warmer temperatures, but the conditions appear to be more to his liking in the Pyrenees. Tuesday's stage was run off in the rain, and similar weather is anticipated for stage 17. 

"Whatever comes, it's going to be hard no matter what the weather is," said Pogačar. "I'd rather have a little bit more cold and even rain on the last climb. But even if it's sunny, I will not mind it."