Geraint Thomas underlined the challenge facing the Ineos Grenadiers and virtually every other team in the Tour de France as he described race leader Tadej Pogacar as being “a level above” the champions of recent years.
Thomas reached Monday’s rest day third overall, 77 seconds behind two-time defending champion Pogacar with Jonas Vingegaard second, 39 seconds down.
Pogacar, still only 23, is on course for a third title in a row after two stage victories in an opening week which also saw him mix it on the cobbles around Roubaix to gain time.
Such have been Pogacar’s performances since he exploded onto the scene in 2019 that the Slovenian is already seen as a rider who can rewrite the record books.
Chris Froome and Alberto Contador were able to dominate Grand Tours in recent years, both winning seven each in seven-year periods.
But Pogacar has instead been drawing comparisons to the greatest of them all – Eddy Merckx – who won 11 Grand Tours between 1968 and 1974 while also gobbling up just about every other major race that mattered.
“I think he’s just a level above,” Thomas said of the Slovenian. “(Vincenzo) Nibali and Contador were great climbers and Contador improved his time trialling a lot. ‘Froomey’ could do both really well. But Pogacar, he’s got everything else (as well).
“You saw his sprint in the Tour of Flanders – he was the strongest guy in the race in Flanders. He can ride on the cobbles, he can do everything. He’s phenomenal.
“A lot of people have praised people in the past and said: ‘This guy will go on to win X,’ but I can’t see how (Pogacar) won’t continue to be the biggest favourite in the next five or six years.”
Merckx has himself endorsed Pogacar, who shows the same ruthless approach as ‘The Cannibal’, not content to simply pick up time but also chasing stage victories as he did into Longwy on Thursday.
“Who doesn’t always want to win?” Pogacar said on Monday. “But I don’t see myself as a cannibal.”
Thomas is not conceding defeat in this Tour just yet – the Welshman knows from experience how quickly fortunes can change in the race.
But a rider who won the Tour in 2018 and came second 12 months later is clear a podium finish would be a major achievement against the younger generation.
“I would still be proud to be on the podium, especially after the last couple of years, to prove a few people wrong,” the 36-year-old said.
“I’ve won it, I’ve come second. To make the podium would be an achievement. I definitely want to try to win the race. The main thing is having no regrets, to know come Paris that I tried everything I could and the team could to win the race.”
One hurdle that had to be cleared on Monday was a full round of Covid-19 tests for all remaining riders after three were forced out by the virus in the opening week.
All 165 tests came back negative, although Thomas missed out on spending some down time with his young son Macs who has himself tested positive.
The Tour continues with Tuesday’s stage to Megeve, though the bigger challenges come on Wednesday – to the Col du Granon via the Galibier – and Thursday’s race up Alpe d’Huez, where rivals must hope there is some sort of crack in Pogacar’s considerable armour.
“In the Tour it is always better to be one step ahead than one step back,” the UAE Team Emirates rider said.
“We are in pole position now. We can control things and it’s a little bit easier for me and the team. It’s nice to have the yellow jersey and now I hope I can keep it all the way.”
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