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Tour de France

Commentary: Tadej Pogačar vs. Primož Roglič becomes an instant classic in Tour de France history

One Slovenian found his wings while another succumbed.

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Three weeks of racing can sometimes be condensed into a few snatches of time. An attack here, or folly there can alter a Tour de France forever.

One of these magical moments happened Saturday during the spectacular time trial finale of the 2020 Tour de France.

Everything was lined up for Primož Roglič’s coronation as Slovenia’s first yellow jersey.

By the end of one of the most spectacular finales in Tour history, the small nation of 2 million people saw its first Tour winner, but almost no one believed it would have been Tadej Pogačar one hour earlier.

A cool and calm Roglič started last on the climbing time trial 57 seconds ahead of Pogačar. A confident Jumbo-Visma raced a near-perfect race for 19 stages, and the 20th stage seemed little more than the next box to check off its list of its meticulous, businesslike approach to racing.

Over the next 55 minutes, something terribly went wrong. Or wonderfully went right, depending on if you take sides.

An effervescent Pogačar reversed the tables in the most stunning final time-trial comebacks since Greg LeMond pipped Laurent Fignon in Paris in 1989. There have been dramatic and jaw-dropping moments in Tour history since then, but 2020 feels like it surpasses those by leaps and bounds.

There were two telling moments when it was clear something dreamlike was unfolding before the world’s eyes.

The first came nearing the day’s second time check. Pogačar had already snatched back 12 seconds on Roglič in the opening 15km. There was no panic yet, but there was a growing feeling this was going to go down to the wire.

Pogačar and Roglič battled throughout the 2020 Tour. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Third-place Miguel Ángel López had started two minutes ahead of Pogačar, and was fighting (unsuccessfully) to preserve his third-place spot. When Pogačar carried so much speed past him that it made López look like he was standing still, it was one of those “whoa-he’s-flying” moments. In time trials, it’s hard to tell sometimes just how fast someone is moving.

Moments later, the gap grew to 25 seconds. It was instantly clear Pogačar was moving very fast.

Starting two minutes behind his younger compatriot, Roglič was hammering away in trademark efficiency. His hunched-forward position produces huge wattage, but the pace that his gap to Pogačar was shrinking suggested something was off.

There was still a feeling that Pogačar might have come too fast out of the gates, and that Roglič was waiting to pour on the gas on the final 5.8km climb to the first-category summit.

Moment number-two: Lower on the Belles Filles climb, with throngs of fans pushing down on him, Roglič’s helmet was askew, and saliva was hanging from his mouth. The yellow jersey was starting to unravel. A botched bike swap wasn’t a good look, but by then, the balance had tipped away from Roglič and into Pogačar’s favor. With Roglič’s face red and ashen at the same time, Pogačar slipped into the virtual race lead.

Then came that giddy “is-this-really-happening?” moment.

It was. And it did.

Roglič looked untouchable for three weeks. Photo: James Startt

Only a grand tour is capable of delivering such stunning and unexpected reversals. The level is so high in today’s professional peloton that no one cracks until the third week of racing. For nearly three weeks of racing, Roglič looked like he was firmly in control of his destiny, until he ran out of gas on the final climb of the penultimate stage of the final time trial.

Pogačar didn’t stop. He was like a Forest Gump on wheels. Just like he’d been doing since the Tour de France started in Nice three weeks ago, he kept churning his legs in an instinctual push for the finish line.

At 21, he still has a tinge of baby fat on him. There are no sinewy arms or veins bulging out of his legs. With a wisp of blonde hair sticking out from underneath his helmet, Pogačar stabbed his bike across the line as if every second counted.

Every second does count in cycling, but he had taken 1:56 out of Roglič. He could have popped a wheelie if he wanted to.

Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert could only look on in disbelief. The pair expertly ripped up the Planche de Belles Filles first and second, respectively, and fully expected to begin celebrating. In a matter of minutes, their smiles disappeared and their expressions reflected their total shock.

Jumbo-Visma had raced a near-perfect race from start to finish. They eliminated Egan Bernal and derailed the once-mighty Ineos Grenadiers. The Tour seemed to be going perfectly to script. Pogačar, meanwhile, had basically no team support in the highest mountains. His team co-captain, Fabio Aru, left the race after just a few stages. His star climbing domestique, Davide Formolo, left a few days later with a broken collarbone.

In the end it was Pogačar who emerged the strongest. Photo: Sebastien Nogier – Pool/Getty Images

Still, Pogačar emerged as the only rider capable of chipping away at Jumbo-Visma — the one rider who refused to bow to the mighty yellow machine. And yet, he continually praised his compatriot in post-race press conferences. He and Roglič were friends, Pogačar said, and his chief rival echoed the sentiment. Despite the friendship, the two attacked each other again and again.

On the upper reaches of the Col de la Loze on Wednesday, where Roglič tightened his grip on the maillot jaune to nearly a minute, Pogačar seemed resigned to what appeared to be inevitable to just about everyone. Thursday’s long march across the Alps and the gravel sector at Plateau de Glières ended in detente. Roglič was spotted tapping Pogačar on the back as if to say good fight, but better luck next year.

Even Pogačar seemed to be conceding that he would be happy in Paris in second in just his first Tour de France.

No one expected the egg to crack as dramatically as it did Saturday.

Greg LeMond erased a 50-second lead to Laurent Fignon to win by eight seconds in their famous final-day time trial duel in Paris in 1989. At least Roglič can take some consolation that his lost is by a wider margin. Still, LeMond only erased a 50-second margin, while Pogačar made 57 seconds go away in seemingly a blink of an eye.

For Roglič, losing by 59 seconds won’t sting as much as if it had come down to single digits. But this Tour de France loss won’t be forgotten for a long, long time.