History looked to be repeating itself as Tadej Pogacar donned a white skinsuit and humbled the entire Tour de France peloton in a time trial – but this time round, unlike the fateful Stage 20 of last year’s race, the Slovenian did not end up with the yellow jersey.
Victory in the 27.2km race against the clock between Changé and Laval saw defending champion Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) move within eight seconds of Mathieu van der Poel after the Dutchman from Alpecin-Fenix defended his yellow jersey with grit and determination on Wednesday.
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Stefan Kung (Groupama-FDJ) looked set to pick up a maiden Tour stage win until 22-year-old Pogacar – the sixth-last rider down the ramp – pulled out all the stops to clock a time of exactly 32 minutes to confine the Swiss TT champion to second place by 19 seconds.
Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard took third place at 27 seconds ahead of Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert, who was three seconds further behind Pogacar, who rode the slightly lumpy course in a zippy average speed of 51kph.
Van der Poel still had around four kilometres of his time trial to ride by the time Pogacar had knocked Kung out of the hot-seat – and despite claiming he expected to concede the race lead ahead of the stage, the 26-year-old defended the maillot jaune valiantly by clocking the fifth-best time of the day, 31 seconds down on Pogacar.
Van Aert rose one place to third, 30 seconds down on his big rival Van der Poel, while Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) dropped to fourth, 48 seconds adrift, after conceding 1:11 to Pogacar.
"Today was a really good day for me,” Pogacar said after a career fourth stage win on only his second Tour. “I didn't do any mistakes. It was perfect weather. Unfortunately some riders had wet roads but I had perfect conditions. I paced myself pretty good and had a good rhythm. The goal was not to lose time and I am excited for the rest of the Tour."
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Primoz Roglic, last year’s runner-up from Jumbo-Visma, and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) both limited their losses off the back of their crashes earlier in the race. Roglic finished 44 seconds down on his compatriot for seventh place – enough to rise into the top 10 – while Welshman Thomas rose six places to 12th at 1:54 after posting the 16th best time.
Elsewhere in a huge shake-up on GC, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Lutsenko (Astana-PremierTech) rose to fifth, Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) to seventh and debutant Vingegaard to eighth. Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) dropped from third to ninth after finishing 1:44 down while Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) plummeted out of the top 10 after shipping an additional five seconds to Carapaz.
It was not entirely good news for UAE-Team Emirates, whose American rider Brandon McNulty crashed early and finished in last place, almost seven minutes down on his teammate Pogacar.
Another UAE rider, the Dane Mikkel Bjerg, set the early benchmark time over a course which featured no climbs but three tough uphill drags. Bjerg enjoyed a long period in the winner’s enclosure after a sustained period of heavy drizzle made the course slippery – causing McNulty’s crash and seeing the Swiss specialist Stefan Bissegger (EF Education-Nippo) almost hit the deck on a tight right-hand bend.
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The rain stopped and the roads dried up just in time for Bissegger’s compatriot Kung, the European TT champion, who surged past three of his minute men on his way to setting a time which looked unlikely to be matched.
But then Pogacar came along and proved that last year’s TT up La Planche des Belles Filles was no fluke. While being spared the burdens of taking over the race leadership so early in the Tour, Pogacar admitted that he was not against the idea of taking over from Van der Poel. “I would love to have the yellow jersey but it looks super nice on Mathieu so it's fine," he said, diplomatically.
The Tour continues on Thursday with the 160km Stage 6 from Tours to Châteauroux, where Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) won his first Tour stage 13 years ago in 2008. Given the Manxman’s resurgence, the 36-year-old green jersey will take some beating in what is expected to be the bunch sprint finale ahead of the hillier roads preceding the Alps.
With defending champion Pogacar now just eight seconds off the summit, the 108th edition of the Tour de France has well and truly started.
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