If there were any doubts, they have now been swept away. In a show of strength that left his rivals breathless in admiration, the defending Tour de France champion, Tadej Pogacar, sprinted to his first stage win in this year’s race in Longwy, stealing into the overall race lead as he did so. “It’s good to have the yellow jersey,” the UAE Emirates team leader said. “It gives confidence and motivation for everyone in the team. The yellow jersey is something you cannot say no to, you ride every day with pride and a smile on the face.” Pogacar may be smiling but his rivals aren’t. With another 15 days of racing to come, this could be a very long Tour for some of them. So far, they have not even landed a punch. The leader’s yellow jersey is now back on the Slovenian’s shoulders without a major climb being tackled and there’s every sign that the double Tour winner is just getting started. Friday’s summit finish at Super Planche des Belles Filles, where he executed a remarkable coup to win his first Tour in 2020, is, the 23-year-old said, “special” to him. Back-to-back stage wins are now a distinct possibility. “Super Planche des Belles Filles is special for me,” he said of the Vosges climb on which he shattered the hapless Primoz Roglic’s grip on the race lead in September 2020. Now Pogacar will be the favourite to win there again, on the extended gravel finish to the summit. “We will try to control [the race] but if it’s not possible, it won’t be a disaster,” he said, “but I would like to go for it.” The Australian sprinter Michael Matthews (Team Bike Exchange), blown away by the Tour champion’s acceleration in the final 200 metres in Longwy, was fulsome in his praise of Pogacar.
“It’s amazing to see a guy with such talent use it in a really good way,” Matthews said. “He’s won the Tour twice but he’s putting on a show for the fans, giving us riders a hard time. It will make it all the more special when I can eventually beat him.”
What Pogacar is doing for this Tour is reducing it to a one-horse race. His biggest rivals, the Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers teams, may soon be reduced to scrapping for the podium places, particularly if Pogacar increases his lead in the Vosges on Friday.
On the road to Longwy, Jumbo-Visma’s best-laid plans failed when the overnight race leader, Wout van Aert, attacked in a bid to put pressure on Pogacar. Van Aert’s move began as the peloton crossed back into France with just under 150km to race. From there on, he drove his two breakaway companions, Trek-Segafredo’s Quinn Simmons and Jakob Fuglsang of Israel-Premier Tech, to their limits.
Fuglsang, beset by a mechanical problem, was first to drop away, while Simmons, with 30km to race, simply could not hang on to Van Aert’s coat tails any more and shook his head in resignation as the race leader sped onwards.
But Van Aert was swept up with 11km to race and then fell far behind the peloton, with Pogacar going on to emphasise his superiority, making it a tactic that backfired. Now the Belgian is in sprinter’s green not yellow. Ineos Grenadiers, despite having four iders in the top eight, have to revaluate their strategy.
Maybe Van Aert’s move was also indicative of a growing air of desperation that is now creeping into the peloton, with Pogacar already looking so dominant. Better to try something, anything, than to try nothing at all, even if you know it is probably doomed to failure.