In the penultimate stage of the Tour de France on Saturday, Tadej Pogacar rode throughout the vineyards of the Bordeaux area with a mixture of prudence and distraction, assured that, this time, the ultimate time trial wouldn’t be a sport changer.
A 12 months in the past, he had used an analogous race towards the clock to flip the tables within the final weekend of the race. This 12 months, the job, for all intents and functions, was already carried out when he rolled off the beginning line. Now he simply had to shut it out, keep away from catastrophe, defend an insurmountable lead — after which carry it into Paris and declare his prize.
With a lead of 5 minutes 20 seconds getting into the historically celebratory remaining stage on Sunday, Pogacar, a 22-year-old from Slovenia, is all however assured to win his second straight Tour de France.
In reality, Pogacar will most probably step onto the rostrum in Paris 3 times on Sunday, donning the yellow jersey for the overall classification winner, the polka-dot jersey awarded to the Tour’s the highest climber, and the white one awarded to its finest younger rider. He received the identical three jerseys final 12 months, when he turned the Tour’s youngest winner within the post-World War II period.
The final result of this 12 months’s race has been identified for days, and even after Pogacar’s eighth-place end within the time trial on Saturday, followers of the Tour had been left with the overwhelming impression that there was restricted competitors for the 22-year-old.
In a sport the place superlative performances are routinely shadowed by suspicions of dishonest — a rival group’s bus and lodge were searched by the French police this week as a part of a doping investigation — Pogacar has been hailed as a machine, a twister, a champion who would possibly go away his mark on the Tour’s historical past as previous champions like Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx have carried out. Merckx, 76, mentioned this week that Pogacar was on his means to at the very least 5 Tour de France titles; others have mentioned the race has entered “the Pogacar era.”
Perhaps extra impressively, Pogacar, racing for U.A.E. Team Emirates, defeated virtually totally on his personal a group that had dominated over the Tour for the previous decade: Ineos Grenadiers, previously often known as Team Sky. By the top of the race’s first 10 days, he had additionally left behind his most critical challenger, Primoz Roglic, who completed second final 12 months however deserted the race this 12 months after a fall within the first week.
As of Saturday, Pogacar had received three phases, however his superiority has been unquestioned. Over the previous three weeks, Pogacar dominated his rivals in a time trial in Western France and knocked out challengers within the harrowing climbs of the Alps. Then, within the scenic landscapes of the Pyrénées this week, he claimed two spectacular victories that drew admiration — and raised eyebrows — for the benefit with which he dispatched two of the race’s high contenders, toying with them through the remaining miles of a frightening ascent.
“Is it a game for you?” a journalist requested Pogacar on Thursday after he accomplished the 18th stage on the high of the Luz Ardiden ski resort, the place he had left behind his two most critical adversaries, Richard Carapaz and Jonas Vingegaard, with just a few highly effective strides.
“Yes, of course,” Pogacar replied with a smile. “I enjoy playing it.”
Vingegaard of Denmark, and Team Jumbo-Visma, appeared set to end second general; he’ll enter Sunday 1 minute 43 seconds forward of Carapaz of Ineos. No different rider is inside 10 minutes of Pogacar.
For Pogacar, the sport began on June 30, when he received a primary particular person time trial within the fifth stage. Three days later, the peloton was within the Alps, and Pogacar was already successful the sport, ripping by his adversaries on Stage 8 and grabbing the yellow jersey. He by no means gave it up.
That day, he mentioned he had advised his teammates that they need to “try to break the race.” And break the race he did: Pogacar’s lead of 1 minute 48 seconds on the finish of the eighth stage had grown to greater than 5 minutes by the point the race hit southern France 4 days later.
Although Pogacar argued that the race was not over, many knew then how it could finish.
As the peloton rolled throughout French roads, this 12 months’s Tour nonetheless introduced its surprising moments. On the primary day, an inattentive fan precipitated a critical crash with a cardboard signal that despatched dozens of cyclists tumbling to the highway; she will face trial in October. Pogacar was challenged during Stage 7 in one of the vital stunning phases in years, leaving observers to surprise if he may truly win. A day later, he was in the yellow jersey.
By this week, he was in full management, even because the shadow of doping allegations returned when the police raided the inns of the Bahrain Victorious group. The group had received two phases on the Tour, however it’s now the goal of a doping investigation opened by the native authorities in Marseille.
But these occasions will all be secondary, at the very least on Sunday. The 2021 version of the Tour might be remembered because the one when Pogacar, now not a shock, morphed into an unstoppable champion.
His superiority was on full show on Wednesday and Thursday, when he received two phases in a row within the Pyrénées.
In the ultimate climbs of Stage 17, main to the Col du Portet, Carapaz tried to overtake Pogacar by main an assault lower than a mile from the end line. As Carapaz grimaced in ache, driving himself in a single final push for the yellow jersey, and began to crack, Pogacar caught proper on his again wheel, calm and virtually expressionless.
With solely 330 ft to go, Pogacar cut out from behind him, accelerated and was gone. His adversaries — Carapaz and Vingegaard — had been left behind in only a matter of seconds, as if frozen on the spot.
It was Pogacar’s first victory on the Tour within the yellow jersey, and on Thursday he repeated the feat within the 18th stage, accelerating when there was lower than half a mile to go, on a grueling climb with a 14 p.c incline, as soon as once more dropping Vingegaard and Carapaz in a matter of seconds.
That day, it felt as if a driver in a automotive had simply overtaken a bunch of cyclists. “It’s unbelievable,” Pogacar said. And for a lot of, the back-to-back performances stay arduous to consider.
Pogacar’s feat has been so spectacular that observers have brazenly raised some doubts. The French newspaper Le Monde wrote that the “taboo of doping” was flying over his performances like “a vulture above the herd,” evaluating his seemingly easy exploits to these of the disgraced former champion Lance Armstrong.
And on Friday, after unnamed riders advised the Swiss newspaper Le Temps that that they had heard “strange noises” coming from the bikes of 4 groups, together with Pogacar’s United Arab Emirates squad, Pogacar mentioned he didn’t “know what to say.”
“We don’t use anything illegal,” he added.
Pogacar has by no means examined constructive for unlawful substances. Instead, on Sunday he’ll most probably be topped once more on the Champs-Élysées for what he has change into: probably the greatest riders of his technology.
This 12 months, quite than a late twist, all people noticed his victory coming for weeks. But his subsequent problem isn’t far-off: Pogacar will compete subsequent Saturday towards his countryman Roglic, Ecuador’s Carapaz and dozens of different Tour rivals, on the decrease slopes of Mount Fuji, for the boys’s highway race gold medal on the Tokyo Olympics.