SAINT-GAUDENS, France (VN) – It’s the Last Chance Saloon for anyone trying to stop Tadej Pogačar from winning a second yellow jersey in Paris on Sunday.
With two decisive mountaintop finishes looming on the wet and cool horizon deep in the French Pyrénées, Pogačar is ready for what he knows could be an old-west-style shootout.
“We are going to ride as hard as we can because it is hard at the end,” Pogačar said Tuesday. “It’s going to be a big GC battle.”
So far, Pogačar is ruling the Tour with an iron fist. He’s avoided crashes and mishaps, took big gains in the individual time trial, and uncorked a long-distance solo attack in the French Alps that reminded many of Eddy Merckx.
Since he’s taken yellow at Le Grand-Bornand, he’s lost no time to a direct rival.
A few riders have flared up on GC, including Ben O’Connor and Guillaume Martin, only to fade out.
Rivals behind him have not been able to mount much of a direct threat. Pogačar again defended his team against criticism and comments that suggested UAE-Team Emirates was not up to the task of defending yellow.
“There was a lot said against my team, how weak we are, and actually we are the best team here,” Pogačar said. “Other teams didn’t employ their best tactics yet. We didn’t see much action of other teams, maybe they are saving themselves for tomorrow … most of the time UAE is pulling at the front and making the race and controlling the bunch.”
Even if UAE-Team Emirates might not be the strongest team on paper, what’s clear is that Pogačar is the strongest rider in the bunch.
And his team has stepped up admirably to protect him across the breadth of the Tour.
Top helper Rafal Majka stayed in the race despite crashing heavily on Saturday’s stage. Majka is so banged up with bruises and abrasions to his chest he can only sleep in one position, meaning that he hasn’t been able to fully rest and recover since the crash.
With a breakaway up the road, Pogačar could patrol the peloton, and save his legs for Wednesday’s summit finale atop Col du Portet. The hors-categorie climb tops out 2,215m elevation and features 8.7 percent grades in 16km.
Two first-category climbs will soften up the bunch, so the big question that remains is if one of his direct rivals will have the legs to attack him?
Ineos Grenadiers has no choice but to attack. Richard Carapaz is a pure climber who will lose time against podium rivals Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma).
Ineos Grenadiers will likely take control of the early climbs, but more likely it will be to put the podium rivals under pressure. If Pogačar cracks as well, then that would be a huge bonus.
Urán typically follows the wheels, and so far, it’s been Vingegaard who’s been the lone rider who was able to gap Pogačar in the climbs.
“If nothing happens unexpected tomorrow, it will be really hard to beat him,” said stage 16 winner Patrick Konrad. “Anyone in the top 10 can still win the Tour.”
Pogačar is nursing more than five minutes on the yellow jersey, and can use that gap to his tactical advantage.
“For sure they are focusing on tomorrow and not today,” Pogačar said. “Tomorrow everyone will try because it’s the hardest day in the Tour. If someone feels super-good, they can make a difference to the person who feels bad.”
If Pogačar doesn’t have a wobble, he’ll be one day closer to Paris. And he can even afford to give up time and defend the yellow jersey.
Will Pogačar follow the attacks and then come over the top to perhaps gain even more time? Or will he decide to defend his yellow jersey without taking risks?
His tactics Wednesday will tell us a lot about what type of rider Pogačar will be as he emerges as the new dominant force in the Tour de France.