Pogačar, who has attacked relentlessly throughout this Tour de France, gritted and grimaced as he pedaled his bicycle up the final 3km of the soaring climb, which capped off the brutal 17th stage of the race. For the first time in this year’s race Pogačar was distanced on a climb; accelerations from stage winner Miguel Ángel López and then rival Primož Roglič unhitched the Slovenian wunderkind.
He eventually finished third on the stage to retain his second place in the GC standings. But Pogačar finally looked tired after so many days on the attack.
“I lost a few seconds on what was a really hard climb,” Pogačar said. “I gave my best, the team gave their best and we got third place on the day to show for it.”
Pogačar lost 15 seconds to Roglič, and now sits 57 seconds out of the yellow jersey. Perhaps a bigger loss, his gap to third place shrunk by nearly 40 seconds. López is now just 31 seconds behind Pogačar in the overall.
After the stage, Pogačar said the climb’s combination of high altitude and uneven gradients made him suffer.
“It was just that steep section and then flat sections — that was really hard for me today,” Pogačar said. “And also, it was at high altitude. It was one of the hardest climbs I’ve done.”
Indeed, the Col de la Loze is the highest point of this year’s Tour de France, topping out at 2,304 meters (7,559 feet). The climb made its debut in the race on Thursday, and organizers have talked up its difficulty for months. The soaring altitude is one element of the climb’s difficulty, and the constantly shifting gradient is another. At its base, the climb has ramps in the 7-8 percent range. Then, in the final five kilometers, the road tilts upward, with gradients hitting 11 and 12 percent falling alongside more mellow ramps of 4 or 5 percent.
The undulating road presents a challenge for riders who climb at a steady tempo, and creates attacking opportunities for riders with more explosive style.
And on Wednesday, riders tackled the climb with tired legs — it came just after the punishing ascent of the famed Col de la Madeleine.
Mikel Landa’s Bahrain-Merida team set a fast pace up both climbs, and as more riders fell away, the GC riders prepared to attack.
“Bahrain-Merida did a really hard tempo on the Madeleine, and then on the Col de la Loze, and the race just exploded in the last few kilometers,” Pogačar said. “I’m happy to be third and not lose too much time.”
A consolation prize of Wednesday’s battle was that Pogačar is now also in the polka-dot jersey for the race’s top climber. He grabbed hold of the classification by sprinting over the summit of the Col de Madeleine.
“I saw 10 points for free almost so I went for it,” Pogačar said. “Why not if I’m in the grasp to take it? I will take it and I’m happy to have two jerseys now.”
Pogačar now has one final opportunity to unseat Roglič before Saturday’s individual time trial in the Jura mountains. On Thursday the race tackles its final day in the Alps, a brutal 168-kilometer slog across five categorized climbs. The route from Méribel to La Roche-sur-Foron hits three cat 1 climbs in succession before tackling the hors categorie Plateau es Gliéres. The route descends from the climb and then sees 15 or so hilly kilometers before the finish.
When asked if the Tour de France’s yellow jersey is still reachable, Pogačar said that it was now a harder goal to achieve.
“Still reachable but tomorrow is another hard day,” he said. “Yeah, we will see if there is anything we can do. I think we can be happy with how we work so far, and how we rode so far, and we will fight to the end, of course, and we will see.”