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With only four riders left, they broke up the race on the road to Peyragudes, and Tadej Pogačar delivered the finishing touch, outsprinting Jonas Vingegaard for his third stage victory of the race.
“This morning, after the abandon of Rafal Majka, we went ‘there’s not many of us [left], but we’re here and we’re a strong team.’ Today, we showed our power, our energy, our desire to put everything into our legs.”
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The loss of ace climber Majka with a thigh strain was a big blow. However, in one of the domestique performances of the race, rouleur Bjerg, who started the day 136rd overall, stepped up to the plate.
He set a brutal pace on the day’s second climb, the second-category Hourquette d’Ancizan. The tall Dane lowered the deficit to the breakaway group and whittled the lead group to a dozen by the top, making the very best suffer.
Brandon McNulty then rode hard on the first-category Col de Val-Louron-Azet, until only he, Pogačar, and Vingegaard remained. After a Pogačar attack over the summit failed to drop Vingegaard, the man from Phoenix, Arizona, took on the descent aggressively.
It’s no surprise that McNulty was given the most combative prize for the day: he continued to set the rhythm up Peyragudes till his leader made his winning move with 250 meters of the stages to go.
Asked by VeloNews whether the team expected such a strong ride from the American, sport director Andrej Hauptman responded: “Yes, because already yesterday he was with the first guys and he waited for Tadej.
“So we know he’s really in great shape in this last week and we are looking forward even to tomorrow to do another spectacular day.
“We don’t put them under pressure,” he added. “Every day, they do their job and today was really one special day and all the guys did one super job.”
Now after winning the battle in Peyragudes, Pogačar and UAE-Team Emirates are little closer to winning the war.
Pogačar wins the battle, but Vingegaard is winning the war
The white jersey wearer only chiseled four bonus seconds off his deficit to race leader Jonas Vingegaard. The one man they most wanted to crack during stage 18 was impregnable.
“We already see on the penultimate climb that Jonas is feeling good,” Hauptman said. “So on the last climb [to Peyragudes], Brandon did hard pacing and from then on in the last 3 kilometers, we just focused on winning the stage.”
On the eve of the race’s last mountain stage, 143km between Lourdes and Hautacam, the gap between the two contenders is 2:18. How much more time does Pogačar need to take to be closer before the 40km stage 20 time trial?
“I don’t know. As much as possible,” Hauptman said, mentioning his awareness of Vingegaard’s strong time trial the previous year.
“Every day is another battle and you cannot say you will need one minute. But we will keep fighting, we will keep trying and in Paris, we will see what we can still do.”