Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) more than lived up to pre-Tour de France expectations on Wednesday as the 22-year-old defending champion claimed a resounding victory on stage 5, the first of the race’s two medium-length time trials, and simultaneously placed himself within eight seconds of his ultimate objective, the maillot jaune.
The sight of a time trial specialist as talented as Swiss and European time trial champion Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) riding disconsolately from media position to media position in the post-stage interview zone to give his version of events, just a few minutes after Pogačar had dislodged him from the top spot, provided a clear visual indication of the scale of the Slovenian’s victory.
Another way of putting it would be that an expert like Küng had performed as well as expected, or better on Wednesday. But both in the GC battle and in the fight for the stage, Pogačar was, simply, in another league.
For Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), the two GC rivals closest to Pogačar at 44 seconds and 78 seconds respectively, the damage inflicted has to be considered in the context of their recent crashes. But for others, like Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), who lost 1:44, or Enric Mas (Movistar), who lost 1:49, the writing on the wall about Pogačar’s superiority was etched far more deeply.
It can hardly have been motivating for the Slovenian’s opponents to hear Pogačar say that he had only begun to feel comfortable with his time trial position again last week after a couple of months of testing. But that did perhaps partly explain why, when asked how he rated this victory, the seventh of the 2021 season, amongst his great time trials, the UAE Team Emirates racer said it was ranked “pretty high.”
“It’s quite an emotional one,” he told reporters. “There were so many fans on the road, for one thing and also it’s been a rough month. Since the Pais Basque race [Itzulia Basque Country] I haven't liked my TT position, so we changed it back to the one I had for Tirreno and before…
“I did a wind tunnel test after Tirreno, and I learned a lot, but I definitely made some mistakes, too. I was more aero, but I was too close [to the frame] and I couldn’t push. Now I’ve found the right balance, we did a good job.
“I only started feeling well on TT bike one week before the Tour, though, and I really didn’t expect such big gaps. I knew I could have a good day today, and I was motivated. But at the end, I could push on the pedals as I wanted to. So I’m really motivated for the next time trial, now, too."
The last time Pogačar delivered such a hugely impressive TT performance it won him the 2020 Tour outright on La Planche des Belles Filles, while this time it means that he is ahead of his rivals with 15 stages left to race. Traditionally a very aggressive racer, he reserved judgement on how this new set of circumstances will affect him in the upcoming stages.
“I don’t know if this situation will change my style. There are still some tricky stages before the mountains,” he pointed out. “Tomorrow [Thursday] is an easier stage but you never know what can happen. I’ll take it on the day by day, but for sure, it’ll be hard to defend this position.
“For sure, now I’m more in front, we’ll have attacks coming every day, and that’s going to be hard, but this is how it is. I’m pretty motivated to see how the race develops now.”
With his nearest pre-race GC rival, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), now at 40 seconds, Pogačar is in an ideal position, too, regarding the one man left ahead of him overall. His eight-second margin behind Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) means another team will defend the overall hierarchy on the two days before the mountains at least.
But apart from the advantage that gives the young Slovenian long-term (partly gained, ironically enough, thanks to a delay after he was caught behind a crash on stage three), Pogačar was personally pleased that Van der Poel remained in yellow as well.
“I’m super happy for him, he’s a real champion and deserves this yellow, it’s good to see him fighting for it and he’s put on a great show,” Pogačar said.
“I came really close to yellow and it would be really nice to have taken it. But I’m super happy with how I finished today, it couldn’t be much better.”
Having jumped from sixth to second overall and kept the best young rider’s jersey in the process for a fifth successive day, plenty of Pogačar’s rivals are now wondering if he is going as well, or better, as he was in 2020.
“We’ve had no big mountains yet and it’s hard to tell from shorter races or from today in a time trial. But I can tell you my condition is super good and my legs are good. It’s more or less same as last year,” he observed.
Such a statement is ominous enough for the opposition, even if it is also true that compared to last year when Pogačar last won a time trial in the Tour, rather than one day there is still more than two weeks of racing to come. That's potentially a lifetime in an event as tumultuous as this year’s Tour de France has been so far. But after Wednesday’s time trial, as well, there is very little doubt as to the name of the man they will all have to beat.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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