In an incredible climax to the Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar crushed fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic in the last stage Saturday before the finish in Paris, snatching away his race lead to all but guarantee that he'll win cycling's showpiece event at his first attempt.
Set, at one day shy of 22, to become the youngest post-World War II champion, Pogacar flew on the penultimate stage, a lung-burning uphill time trial, and devoured the 57-second lead that had made Roglic look impregnable before the showdown in the mountains of eastern France.
Equally amazing: This is Pogacar’s first Tour. Among others who pulled off the feat of winning at their first attempt: the great Eddy Merckx. The Belgian also won his next four Tours after his first in 1969. Given his young age and breathtaking talent, Pogacar's first also looks unlikely to be his last.
“Unbelievable, unbelievable,” Pogacar said. “My head will explode.”
In the end, it wasn't even close. Pogacar was sensational, not only ripping the iconic race leader's yellow jersey from Roglic, but comfortably winning the time trial, too. He gobbled through the 36 kilometers (22 miles), slicing through the air in an aerodynamic tuck on a slick time-trial bike and then switching to a road bike for the sharp finishing ascent to the Planches des Belles Filles ski station.
Roglic labored in comparison, looking taut where Pogacar glided fluidly. He, too, hopped onto a road bike for the climb, his with yellow tape on the handlebars to match the jersey that he was in the process of losing.
As Roglic ascended, what was left of his lead melted away. It then became a yawning deficit to Pogacar, who'd been second overall going into the time trial, which amply lived up to its nickname: “The race of truth.” The 30-year-old Roglic managed no better than fifth, a whopping 1 minute, 56 seconds slower than his younger and clearly fresher countryman. At the top, he sat slumped on the tarmac, the enormity of his collapse sinking in.
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“I will cry. Or I did, already,” Roglic said. “I struggled with everything, eh? Just not enough power,”
“I would want it to be a little different, but I cannot change it," he added. “It is how it is.”
Not since British riders Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome finished 1-2 at the 2012 Tour has one nation taken the top two spots.
But almost everyone — even Pogacar — had expected that Roglic would roll into Paris with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, sipping Champagne in the saddle on the processional ride, on his way to becoming Slovenia's first winner. Roglic had taken the race lead on Stage 9 and held it all the way to Saturday, Stage 20, the worst day to lose it. He now trails Pogacar by 59 seconds overall.
"I cannot believe how hard it must be for him," Pogacar said. “He must be devastated. But that’s bike racing.”
Only a major mishap Sunday — highly unlikely — will prevent Pogacar from taking over from 2019 winner Egan Bernal, who was 22, as the youngest post-war champion. So sure is his victory that he was already introduced at the race organizers' press conference Saturday evening as the Tour winner.
“I can't wait to cross the line in Paris,” Pogacar said.
Australian Richie Porte will complete the podium, after he time-trialed brilliantly to hoist himself from fourth to third overall. Porte is a veteran of 10 Tours, but he'd only once finished in the top 10 — a fifth place in 2016 — in a career sometimes dogged by ill-fortune.
Aged 35, Porte wanted a picture of himself on the Tour podium before his career ends. He'll get that Sunday.
“It really does feel like a victory,” Porte said.
He, too, said he felt for Roglic.
“It's kind of brutal what happened,” he said.
The high drama was reminiscent of Frenchman Laurent Fignon's collapse in 1989. He had a lead of 50 seconds over Greg LeMond before the final stage, also a time trial, from Versailles to Paris. Fignon ended up losing to the American by just eight seconds — the smallest ever margin of victory.
Pogacar, who finished third at last year’s Spanish Vuelta won by Roglic, might have had an even bigger lead by now had he not suffered a major setback in the first week of the three-week marathon, raced over more than 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles) and all five of France's mountain ranges.
On Stage 7, Pogacar plummeted from third to 16th overall, when he was caught out in crosswinds. But he shook off his disappointment and set about clawing his way back.
A win on Stage 9ahead of Roglic in the Pyrenees soon followed and helped put him back in contention. In hindsight, Roglic may well rue that he and his Jumbo-Visma teammates didn't pay closer attention and allowed his friend and rival from the UAE Team Emirates squad so much leash.
Pogacar followed up with another victory on Stage 15 and had been in second place overall for the past week.
While Roglic was surrounded at the Tour by powerful support riders who labored tirelessly to protect his race lead, Pogacar had no such luxuries. Beating Roglic in the man-to-man time trial, the two of them alone against the clock, was a fitting tribute to the way in which Pogacar has often relied on his own formidable resources, the brightest prodigy in an exciting crop of young riderswho lit up the Tour.
Even Roglic, at the finish, gave him a thumbs-up.
“He definitely deserves his win,” he said. “Obviously, a really, really super-talented guy.”