Tadej Pogacar landed the first real blow in the battle for final victory in the 2021 Tour de France, winning the 27.2 kilometre individual time trial from Change to Laval and almost lifting the race leader’s yellow jersey from the shoulders of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
Although the Dutch rider clung on to the race lead by a mere eight seconds, UAE-Team Emirates’ prodigy was almost as irresistible on the rolling roads of the Mayenne as he had been in his spectacular race-winning climb to La Planche des Belles Filles last autumn.
Pogacar, best known for his climbing, rather than his time trialling skills, admitted that he hadn’t expected to distance his rivals so markedly.
“I was in the wind tunnel [last spring] and learned a lot. But [before] I definitely made some mistakes,” he said. “Now I have found a balance. We did a good job with my positioning, so I’m pretty happy with the development.”
As the defending Tour champion took the day’s honours, the battle for supremacy in the general classification came into focus as the peloton readied itself for the long haul east towards this weekend’s first Alpine stage, from Oyonnax to Le Grand Bornand.
Clinging on in the Slovenian’s wake are most of his rivals. Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers now trails by 1:36, 2020 runner-up, Primoz Roglic, is 1:40 behind his compatriot, and 2018 winner, Geraint Thomas, has been distanced by 1:46 . The four-pronged leadership strategy of Thomas’s team appears to already have been dismantled.
“Obviously Pogacar’s in the strongest position,” Thomas said. “But as we have seen in the first three or four days so far, a lot can happen and change.”
“It’s open,” Thomas maintained. “It’s all to play for.”
Yet there is no doubt that the 21-year-old was the big winner and, with another time trial on the eve of the final stage in Paris, the omens are not good for those seeking to dethrone him. Thomas, who struggled to overcome the continuing pain from the right shoulder that he dislocated on stage three to Pontivy, vowed to fight on.
“I think I rode the best I could,” the Welshman said. “My shoulder didn’t feel 100% but I don’t want to bang on about that. I tried to do what I could and it wasn’t enough. I think it was decent enough pacing, just not enough power.”
“I woke up this morning and felt terrible, to be honest, but once I got going, it loosened up a bit and was better. But it’s one of those things. You just have to crack on and deal with it and just keep fighting.”
The Tour’s first time trial proved a tough test for Chris Froome, hampered by the injuries he sustained in the mass pile-up on stage one. The four-time Tour winner finished 121st on the stage and, despite a solid performance, remains among the lowliest ranked in the peloton.
“Each day’s getting better,” he said, “Today was quite nice, just to be [racing] on my own, especially after a few stressful stages. It wasn’t an all out effort, probably around 85%, but it was nice just to open up a little bit, push a little. But, day by day, things are improving.”
Froome, like many in the peloton, is still the nursing the aftermath of his high-speed fall on the road to Landernau. “I’ve got a lot of dark bruising on my upper leg, and my chest, but I don’t think I’m the only one in the peloton with aches and pains. A lot of guys have come down these last few days and looking around, I can’t ever remember seeing so many injured riders. It’s pretty scary.”
Meanwhile, the mystery spectator blamed for last Saturday’s first mass crash on the road to Landernau has been found and arrested, according to reports in France, although race organisers ASO and the French prosecutors office declined to confirm the arrest.