LAVAL, France — Tadej Pogacar waited until the penultimate stage to take control of the Tour de France last year.
The young Slovenian rider did it after only five stages this summer, with a stunning display in Wednesday’s time trial that won’t be forgotten by his rivals.
In the first big battle between the main contenders — a 16.9-mile test against the clock coming early in the race — Pogacar reigned supreme, powering to victory to assert himself as the odds-on favorite at the showcase event.
“Today was a really good day for me. I didn’t do any mistakes,” Pogacar said.
The 22-year-old UAE Team Emirates leader did not seize the yellow jersey but gained time over his main rivals.
Just look at the damage: Pogacar was 44 seconds faster than last year’s runner-up, Primoz Roglic, while 2018 champion Geraint Thomas dropped 1 minute, 18 seconds. Richard Carapaz, a former Giro champion with big ambitions at the Tour this year, was 1:44 off the pace.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe was among the day’s losers, 1:11 off Pogacar’s pace.
The Tour is a race of attrition and remains wide open. But the mountain stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees will be crucial, and Pogacar proved last year — when he became the second-youngest winner in the race history — that he can compete with the best climbers.
In addition, he has a stronger team this year and the Tour is less mountainous. More importantly, another long time trial will be on the program on the eve of the finish on the Champs Elysees.
Pogacar lagged 39 seconds behind leader Mathieu van der Poel at the start of Stage 5 in the western Mayenne region on Wednesday and erased a big chunk of the deficit to move into second place in the general classification.
Van der Poel has limited abilities in high mountains and is not expected to remain in the mix once the race reaches the Alps later this week.
“I won’t keep (the yellow jersey) in the mountains, but I like Tadej, he is a very nice guy and it’s really amazing what he does,” said Van der Poel.
Pogacar had no rival on the technical loop from Changé to Laval. Not even the best specialists in the discipline could provide a challenge.
Pogacar unleashed his power on the long stretches of flat roads and did not lose his tempo on the hills scattered along the course. Riding in an aerodynamic position, Pogacar perfectly negotiated the sharp curves of the finale and covered the route in 32 minutes, at an average speed of 32 mph.
Pogacar snatched the yellow jersey in a high-drama time trial on the eve of the finish in Paris last year. He became the first rider Wednesday to win two consecutive time trials at the Tour since Bradley Wiggins in 2012.
Van der Poel fought hard in the closing stages and produced his best time trial ever to keep the coveted yellow jersey, crossing the line exhausted with his mouth wide open.
“I surprised myself today,” said Van der Poel, who rides for the Alpecin-Fenix team. “I’m really proud of this performance. When I said I was going to lose the jersey today it was not a lie, it’s not my specialty.”
Pogacar was 19 seconds faster than time trial specialist Stefan Kung. Jonas Vingegaard was third, 27 seconds behind.
Overall, Pogacar lags eight seconds behind Van der Poel.
Roglic, who was Pogacar’s main rival last year, said he was proud of his performance following his heavy crash two days earlier.
“It’s hard, definitely. All the time trials are always very painful, let’s say it like that,” Roglic said. “But I just missed some power. I really squeezed totally everything out of myself.”
Thomas was also recovering from a crash and said he did the best he could.
“Obviously, I didn’t feel 100% but I don’t want to bang on about that, I tried to do what I could and it wasn’t enough really,” he said. “I woke up this morning and felt terrible, but once I got going and loosened up it was better. It’s just one of those things that you have to crack on and deal with — just keep fighting I guess.”
Time-trial specialist Tony Martin, a teammate of Roglic at Jumbo-Visma, was among the early starters. Under grey skies but dry roads, the four-time individual time trial world champion played it safe following his big crash earlier in the race and crossed the line in 35 minutes, 33 seconds.
Mikkel Bjerg of Denmark, a rising star in the discipline with three U23 titles in the race against the clock, dramatically improved on Martin’s time with 33:01.
Bjerg finished his run under a slight drizzle and the rain intensified afterward, making the roads slippery for the riders starting out later. American Brandon McNulty was among those and crashed, crossing the finish line lagging well behind and with both legs bloodied.
Times improved once the rain stopped and roads dried out. Kung, a five-time Switzerland champion, stayed for a while in the hot seat and looked dejected when Pogacar crossed the line.
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