Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) took the yellow jersey after winning the uphill sprint in Longwy on stage 6 of the Tour de France, a day that will be long remembered for previous leader Wout van Aert’s sustained but doomed onslaught at the head of the race.
The Jumbo-Visma man ultimately conceded his yellow jersey to Pogačar, but only after repeatedly splitting the field in the opening kilometres and then sparking the three-man break of the day with a little under 150km to go.
Van Aert knew he was playing with fire, of course, and he must have sensed that self-immolation was the most likely outcome. Still he persisted, and he was the last survivor of the three-man break before his move was eventually snuffed out with 11km remaining, when he caught and dropped by the peloton.
As one offensive guttered, another ignited. Pogačar splintered the leading group with an acceleration of his own on the Côte de Pulventeux with 5.5km remaining, and over the other side, his UAE Team Emirates squad set about pegging back late attacker Alexis Vuillermoz (TotalEnergies) on the final approach to the line.
Rafal Majka and Brandon McNulty marshalled a reduced front group up the 2km haul to the finish, and although Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) defiantly opened the sprint from distance, Pogačar delivered an emphatic response, careering clear to win the stage comfortably from Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
The 10-second time bonus for stage victory sufficed to lift Pogačar ahead of Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) in the overall standings and into the yellow jersey. He leads the American by 4 seconds, with Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) now third at 31 seconds. Roglič looked to have weathered the dislocated shoulder he suffered on Wednesday, but he remains some 2:27 adrift of the seemingly untouchable Pogačar.
“Today was so hard from the start, the first two hours was so crazy, because the strongest guy went in the breakaway,” Pogačar said. “Lots of guys were pulling in the peloton, including all our team as well. I was thinking that he would come to the finish, but in the end, the peloton was stronger. When we came to the final climbs, I was still feeling good.”
Powless spent much of the day believing he might inherit yellow if and when Van Aert’s assault fizzled out, and he produced another strong showing to finish in the front group, which featured all of the podium contenders, but there was simply nothing to be done in the face of Pogačar’s final acceleration.
“As soon as we saw Wout in the break, we thought, ‘perfect, we can let him burn himself and try to go for yellow in the end',” Powless said. “But unfortunately, the bonus seconds at the finish took it away.”
Five years ago, the same uphill finish in Longwy produced a Peter Sagan stage victory. This time out, the front group was populated largely by GC riders, but even the fast finishers who survived the cut couldn’t match the ferocity of Pogačar’s sprint, which carried him well clear of Matthews.
“It wasn’t a pure sprint because we rode the last two climbs really hard,” Pogačar said. “It was above our threshold, it was super hard into the final climb, hectic and everything. I guess I had good legs to push at the end.”
How it unfolded
There were suggestions at the start that this might prove something of a transitional day as the peloton recovered from the rigours of the cobblestones the previous afternoon, though Matthews had a word of warning before the race left Binche. “The key point is actually the start, to see who is going in the break,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an unexpected race today.”
Unexpected was one way of putting it. Once the flag dropped, the principal aggressor was the maillot jaune himself. A searingly fast opening phase saw 52.5km covered in the first hour of racing, and that startling speed was due largely to Van Aert’s impetus, with the peloton repeatedly splitting and reforming in his wake.
Van Aert eventually forced his way clear with 148km remaining, bringing Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Israel-Premier Tech) with him, and the peloton seemingly accepted there was little point in trying to reason with the maillot jaune when he was in this mood.
The offensive bore faint echoes of his rival Mathieu van der Poel’s defence of yellow on the road to Le Creusot at last year’s Tour, but on that occasion, the Dutchman infiltrated a 29-man move. In truth, this all-out assault was perhaps more reminiscent of Eddy Merckx’s aggression on the road to Marseille in 1971.
That afternoon, mind, Merckx’s boundless energy was diverted towards the clear goal of trying to regain the yellow jersey from Luis Ocaña. Van Aert, by contrast, was already in the overall lead and he is part of a team with two riders targeting final overall victory. His attack made no strategic sense, but his decision to race against all logic as well as against the entire peloton made for gripping viewing.
“He’s playing with our balls, isn’t he? I don’t know what to say, really,” said Tom Pidcock (Ineos), who would eventually take fourth on the stage. “He’s taking the piss, isn’t he?”
Not even a slipped chain on the Côte des Mazures and a later bike change could discourage Van Aert, who built a maximum lead of just under four minutes. He later picked up full points at the intermediate sprint, but it was clear that his eyes were on a grand exploit rather than managing his substantial lead in the green jersey standings.
Bora-Hansgrohe, Alpecin-Deceuninck and EF Education-EasyPost combined to lead the chase behind, and out front, Fulgsang sat up with 65km to go, but Van Aert and Simmons maintained a buffer of two minutes as they entered the final 50km. The pace in the bunch picked up thereafter, with German champion Nils Politt particularly effective, but Van Aert refused to be discouraged, and he eased clear of Simmons with 30km remaining.
The terrain grew more rugged from here, yet Van Aert still maintained a 30-second advantage deep into the finale, even as Ineos Grenadiers massed in pursuit. He was eventually recaptured just after the category 4 Côte de Montigny-sur-Chiers with 11km remaining, and the day’s spoils would fall to Pogačar, who inherits yellow in time for the first summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles.
The two-time winner is already in a commanding position atop the overall standings. Friday’s finale, where he won his first Tour in 2020, offers an obvious chance to land a most telling blow.
“Tomorrow is one of the climbs where you need to go full gas from bottom to top, and there's not much calculation, but you can explode pretty fast because there are super, super steep sections,” he said. “It's good that I know the climb up to the last 1km, and then I hope that I have as good legs as I have had until now.”
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