Matej Mohoric’s spectacularly ill-judged ‘zipped lips’ victory salute in Libourne on Friday afternoon echoed Lance Armstrong’s infamous gesture of 2004 and seemed to send an icy message to observers of this Tour de France: watch, but don’t ask questions.
Officers from France’s Central Office for the Fight against Environmental and Public Health Damage (OCLAESP) have questions about this race, of course, which is why they searched the hotel rooms and vehicles of Mohoric’s Bahrain Victorious team in Pau on Wednesday evening.
And some riders in the peloton, it seems, have questions too. A report in Swiss newspaper Le Temps cited three unnamed riders who expressed concern about “strange noises” emanating from the rear wheels of the bikes of four teams, including yellow jersey Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates squad.
"There is a strange noise. I can hear it while riding. It comes from the rear wheels. A strange metallic noise, like a badly adjusted chain. I've never heard that anywhere," said one rider, according to the report.
In the opening question of what turned out to be a rather perfunctory post-stage press conference on Friday evening, Pogačar was asked if he used anything illegal in his bike.
“I don’t know. We don’t hear any noise,” Pogačar said. “We don’t use anything illegal. It’s all Campagnolo materials, Bora. I don’t know what to say.”
The written press were then granted only two more questions to Pogačar, who responded glibly to an inquiry about his travel arrangements for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The Slovenian is set to ride the road race next Saturday, just five days after he rides into Paris in yellow.
“We will go on Monday, with the plane, because I checked Google maps and you cannot go by car,” Pogačar said. “It doesn’t find the route, so we’ll go in the plane, yes.”
Pogačar carries a lead of some 5:45 over Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) into the penultimate stage of the Tour, a 30.8km time trial from Libourne to Saint Émilion. Last September, he won his debut Tour by overhauling his compatriot Primož Roglič on the corresponding stage to La Planche des Belle Filles, but the 22-year-old has long since divested this Tour of any suspense.
Already winner of the stage 5 time trial in Laval, as well as the mountaintop finishes at the Col du Portet and Luz Ardiden in the Pyrenees, Pogačar will, on the evidence of this race to date, be favourite to notch up a fourth stage victory on Saturday afternoon.
“For tomorrow’s time trial, I will see how I sleep today and how I wake up tomorrow,” Pogačar said. “I go with no stress, no pressure. Of course, I will do my best like I always do, especially in the TTs. We will see what it will bring, but I don’t make any stress about the time trial tomorrow.”
Merckx dubs Pogacar 'the new Cannibal'
Stage 19 set out from Mourenx, the site of perhaps the defining feat of Merckxism from 1969, and Eddy Merckx was present on the Tour on Friday as a guest of honour. The idea, of course, was that he might be on hand to witness Mark Cavendish overhaul his record of 34 stage wins at the Tour, but the spoils fell to the break rather than the sprinters, postponing Cavendish’s date with destiny to the Champs-Élyées on Sunday evening.
No matter, Merckx was still able to run the rule over a rider whose authority over this Tour has already drawn comparison with the Belgian’s own dominance during his sequence of five overall victories.
“I see in him the new Cannibal,” Merckx said of Pogačar. “He has already won one Tour and normally he will win his second.
“He is extremely strong. I see him winning several editions of the Tour in the coming years. If nothing happens to him, he can certainly win the Tour de France more than five times.”
Merckx later joined Pogačar on the podium in Libourne on Friday afternoon when the Slovenian was presented with his 12th maillot jaune of the Tour. Pogačar, who will also win both the best young rider and king of the mountains classifications in Paris on Sunday, paid tribute to Merckx in a television interview after the ceremony.
“It is huge to stand with Eddy Merckx on the podium. He is a hero in cycling. I don’t consider myself as a hero yet, but I hope I am inspiring lots of kids to ride their bikes,” said Pogačar, who exhibited some of the traits of a Tour patron on stage 19 when he shut down some early attacks in person.
“There were a few crashes and splits at the start of the stage today. It is really not nice to begin a race like this. We then kept the bunch quiet for a bit, but after the sprint we went on full attack mode. It was a pretty strange race. But then a group went away, and the bunch turned quiet again.”
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