A few hundred metres from where Tadej Pogacar sealed his first overall Tour de France victory less than two years ago, he moved another step closer to a third with a stage win on La Planche des Belles Filles on Friday.
It was on this climb in the Vosges mountains that Pogacar wrestled the yellow jersey from off the shoulders of fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic in a dramatic time trial in September 2020.
This time racing continued for another kilometre, the ‘Super’ version of the climb with gravel sections and 24 per cent inclines – distance enough for the main contenders to break the heart of breakaway rider Lennard Kamna in sight of the finish and for Pogacar to pass Jonas Vingegaard on the line.
There are still 14 stages to go this year, but barring injury or incident this already looks like being the 23-year-old’s race to lose as he bids to become only the ninth man to win three or more Tours, and only the seventh to win three in a row.
Pogacar now leads by 35 seconds from Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard, with Geraint Thomas of the Ineos Grenadiers up to third, 70 seconds down despite losing 14 seconds in the last few metres of this Tour’s first summit finish.
But Pogacar’s second stage win in as many days – he took yellow from Wout Van Aert into Longwy on Thursday – once again underlined his dominance.
It is only 10 years since this climb made its Tour debut – a day when Sir Bradley Wiggins moved into yellow and Chris Froome took his first stage win – but already it has seen a number of significant days in Tour history and this has the potential to have been another.
Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates squad, their depth once again questioned, had led the peloton for virtually all of the 176.5km stage from Tomblaine, but Rafal Majka, tasked with delivering Pogacar to the final corner, instead waved him past with 800 of the most punishing metres to go. It would not be a problem.
At that stage Bora-Hansgrohe’s Kamna, the last survivor of an 11-man breakaway, was still leading, having emptied himself in a bid to hang on to what had been a 90-second advantage at the foot of the climb and was still at 35 seconds when he passed under the flamme rouge.
Pogacar had carried Thomas and Vingegaard, doggedly stuck to his wheel, all the way up the seven-kilometre test. It was when Vingegaard, a man who will hope to challenge Pogacar in the high mountains, launched a late attack on the final bend that Kamna was caught, but Pogacar followed.
Other riders might have been content to follow the Dane home and simply ensure there was no time loss, but Pogacar is different.
“It was really difficult, especially in the end,” he said. “The last part, when Jonas attacked he was so strong. but I (thought) ‘My boys have been working all day, I have to push to the finish line’.
“It was a big goal. (Jonas) is right now one of the strongest climbers in the world, probably the best climber in the world…A little bit is always good but still in cycling no gap is enough.”
Thomas, distanced on the final bend, rolled in behind Roglic and Kamna, but though he lost time he moved up the rankings as his team-mates Adam Yates and Tom Pidcock conceded some ground, Yates now sitting fourth overall and Tour debutant Pidcock dropping to seventh.
“I’d like to say I was holding back but I wasn’t,” Thomas said. “I tried to hold back at the start so I wasn’t spent at the end, I didn’t want to blow there. I think I judged it alright. It was nice to be in the mix.”
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.