In the penultimate stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, Tadej Pogacar traveled through the vineyards of the Bordeaux region with a mixture of caution and distraction, confident that this time the final time trial would not be a game-changer. .
A year ago, he used a similar time trial to turn things around on the last weekend of the race. This year the job, for all intents and purposes, was already done when he stepped off the starting line. Now all he had to do was shut it down, avoid disaster, defend an insurmountable advance – then transport it to Paris and claim its prize.
With a lead of 5 minutes 20 seconds at the start of the traditional final stage on Sunday, Pogacar, a 22-year-old Slovenian, is almost guaranteed to win his second consecutive Tour de France.
In fact, Pogacar will probably be on the podium three times in Paris on Sunday, donning the overall winner’s yellow jersey, the polka-dot jersey awarded to the Tour’s top climber and the white awarded to his best youngster. rider. He won the same three jerseys last year, when he became the youngest Tour winner after WWII.
The outcome of this year’s race has been known for days, and even after Pogacar’s eighth place in the time trial on Saturday, Tour fans had the overwhelming impression that competition was limited for the player from 22 years old.
In a sport where superlative performances are systematically clouded by suspicion of cheating – the bus and hotel of a rival team were raided by French police this week as part of a doping investigation – Pogacar has been hailed as a machine, a tornado, a champion who could leave his mark in the history of the Tour, as former champions like Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx did. Merckx, 76, said this week that Pogacar is on his way to at least five Tour de France titles; others said the race had entered the “Pogacar era”.
Perhaps more impressive still, Pogacar, who raced for UAE Team Emirates, defeated almost entirely on his own a team that had ruled the Tour for the past decade: Ineos Grenadiers, formerly known as Team Sky. By the end of the first 10 days of racing he had also left behind his most serious challenger, Primoz Roglic, who finished second last year but dropped out of the race this year after falling in week one.
On Saturday, Pogacar had won three stages, but his superiority is indisputable. For the past three weeks, Pogacar has dominated his rivals in a time trial in western France and knocked out the challengers in the grueling climbs of the Alps. Then, in the picturesque landscapes of the Pyrenees this week, he scored two impressive victories that sparked admiration – and raised eyebrows – for the ease with which he sent out two of the race’s top contenders, playing with them for the last few years. kilometers of an intimidating climb. .
“Is this a game for you?” A journalist asked Pogacar on Thursday after completing the 18th stage at the top of the ski resort of Luz Ardiden, where he had left behind his two most serious opponents, Richard Carapaz and Jonas Vingegaard, with just a few powerful strides.
“Yes, of course,” Pogacar replied with a smile. “I like to play it.”
Dane Vingegaard and the Jumbo-Visma team looked set to finish second overall; it will enter Sunday 1 minute 43 seconds ahead of Carapaz d’Ineos. No other motorcyclist is within 10 minutes of Pogacar.
For Pogacar, the match started on June 30, when he won a first individual time trial in stage five. Three days later, the peloton was in the Alps, and Pogacar was already winning the game, tearing up his opponents in Stage 8 and seizing the yellow jersey. He never gave up on it.
That day he said he told his teammates they should “try to break the race”. And he shattered the race: Pogacar’s lead of 1 minute 48 seconds at the end of the eighth stage had grown to over five minutes by the time the race hit the south of France four days later.
Although Pogacar maintained that the race was not over, many knew then how it would end.
As the peloton rolled on French roads, this year’s Tour brought yet another unexpected moment. On the first day, an inattentive fan caused a serious accident with a cardboard sign that knocked dozens of cyclists down the road; she will be judged in October. Pogacar was challenged on Stage 7 in one of the most surprising stages in years, leaving observers wondering if he could actually win. A day later, he wore the yellow jersey.
This week he was in full control, even as the shadow of doping allegations returned when police raided the Bahrain Victorious team hotels. The team had won two stages on the Tour, but they are now the target of an anti-doping investigation opened by the local authorities in Marseille.
But these events will all be secondary, at least on Sunday. The 2021 edition of the Tour will be remembered as the one where Pogacar, who was no longer a surprise, turned into an unstoppable champion.
His superiority was in the spotlight on Wednesday and Thursday when he won two consecutive stages in the Pyrenees.
In the last climbs of stage 17, leading to the Col du Portet, Carapaz attempted to overtake Pogacar by leading an attack less than a mile from the finish line. As Carapaz grimaced in pain, drove in one last push for the yellow jersey, and started to crack, Pogacar stuck right on his rear wheel, calm and almost expressionless.
With only 330 feet to go, Pogacar cut behind him, accelerated and disappeared. His opponents, Carapaz and Vingegaard, were left behind in a few seconds, as if frozen in place.
It was Pogacar’s first Tour victory in the yellow jersey, and on Thursday he repeated the feat on stage 18, accelerating with less than half a mile to go, on a climb. grueling with a slope of 14%, again down Vingegaard and Carapaz in seconds.
That day, it was as if a car driver had just passed a group of cyclists. “It’s amazing”, Pogacar mentionned. And for many, the consecutive performances remain hard to believe.
Pogacar’s achievement was so impressive that observers openly raised doubts. French newspaper Le Monde wrote that the “doping taboo” hovered over his performance as “a vulture above the herd”, comparing his seemingly effortless exploits to those of disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong.
And on Friday, after anonymous riders told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that they had heard “strange noises” coming from the motorcycles of four teams, including the United Arab Emirates team in Pogacar, Pogacar said he did not “Didn’t know what to say”.
“We are not using anything illegal,” he added.
Pogacar has never tested positive for illegal substances. Instead, on Sunday he will likely be crowned again on the Champs-Élysées for what he has become: one of the best runners of his generation.
This year, rather than a late rebound, everyone saw their victory coming for weeks. But his next challenge is not far off: Pogacar will face his compatriot Roglic, Ecuador Carapaz and dozens of other Tour rivals next Saturday on the lower slopes of Mount Fuji for the gold medal of the race on men’s route to the Tokyo Olympics.