Four more stages of this turbulent, surprising, crash-filled Tour de France are left to run and, despite all the drama and shocks, nothing essential has changed in the race for the yellow jersey, except a reshuffling of the runners-up and Tadej Pogačar increasing his lead. Barring accident, illness or a shocking loss of form, the Slovenian cycling phenomenon will easily win his second consecutive Tour.
Ahead of Thursday’s stage 18, which includes two monstrous “beyond category” climbs with one summit finish, the 22-year-old Pogačar leads the race for the yellow jersey by 5 min 39 sec over Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard, with Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers in third place at 5 min 43 sec.
— Tour de France 2021 (@TourdeFrance21) July 14, 2021
That was also the finish order in Wednesday’s thrilling stage 17 with the three likely podium finishers battling it out, mano a mano, on the last 5 km of the gruelling 16-km climb up to the summit of the Col du Portet, with the Slovenian again proving that no one can touch him in the mountains. “To win in the yellow jersey is a feeling I cannot describe,” the delighted Pogačar said after the stage. It was the first time he had won a Tour stage wearing the yellow jersey as he took the GC lead in last year’s Tour on stage 20, the individual time trial. He also praised his UAE Team Emirates teammates who have so far given him excellent support in comparison to last year when Pogačar won the race on his own.
Anyone wishing to overtake him will now have to take at least six minutes off him on the two big climbs of stage 18 and then match or beat him in Saturday’s individual time trial. The first challenge is as unlikely as the second as Pogačar is clearly both the best climber and the best ITT rider in the peloton.
What a day!
2⃣ on stage 17
2⃣ on GC
💬 "I think Pogacar, Carapaz and I were evenly matched today." – Jonas Vingegaard
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) July 14, 2021
Most of the GC interest in the race is therefore focused on the battle for the second and third place – and it puts a spotlight on Ineos Grenadiers who have had a disappointing Tour de France. Their primary GC hope, Geraint Thomas, crashed early and was soon out of the running. And Plan B, otherwise known as Richard Carapaz, is simply not as strong as Pogačar in climbing or the ITT. And Ineos have yet to win a single stage.
Their problem is how to manage what little remains of the Tour: work to ensure that Carapaz finishes on the podium in Paris or go for a stage win? Remember that last year, after the main Ineos hope Egan Bernal dropped out of the Tour, their Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski won stage 18 to save the team’s honour.
Thursday is stage 18 and if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Kwiatkowski or fellow Ineos rider Tao Geoghegan Hart to win the prestigious stage and save the team’s blushes once again. Both dropped out early on stage 17, probably to save energy for the next day. Team Jumbo-Visma, on the other hand, has managed to overcome a lot of bad luck to produce an excellent performance.
Crashes have deprived the team of its main GC candidate, Primož Roglič, and reduced their number at the race to mere four riders. Two of those riders, the multitalented Wout van Aert and American Sepp Kuss, have won stages. If Vingegaard were to keep his place on the podium until Paris, it would represent a major victory for the team, and a model of how to overcome adversity at the Tour de France.
Pogačar will turn 23 in September, and it already looks as if he will (and wants to) dominate the Tour de France for years to come. His dominance at such a young age has raised the inevitable questions about whether or not his victories have been fair and square.
He addressed those questions in a story published online by the BBC. “I’m a good kid with a good education, I’m not one to take shortcuts,” Pogačar said. He called the questions “uncomfortable” because of cycling’s history but said that he understood why they are raised. “I didn’t prepare anything for those kinds of questions,” he added. “I just like to ride my bike and what comes with it comes with it. I’ll deal with it.”
He sounds like the kind of champion the sport has long been waiting for, one who reminds fans of the great riders of the past and makes us forget the cheaters.