LE GRAND-BORNAND, France — Tadej Pogacar wagged his head and grinned, his blond hair slick from sweat and rain, his cheeks ruddy from the mountain cold and a colossal effort from smashing his remaining rivals at the Tour de France.
As he cooled down on the stationary bike, the defending champion seemed to have even surprised himself.
“Ah, what a ride. What a day,” he said, unable to wipe the smile of satisfaction off his face.
Pogacar dealt a demoralizing blow on the first day of the Tour in the Alps on Saturday, when cycling’s precocious star claimed the yellow jersey after what was a grueling eighth stage to everyone else.
Pogacar started the day 3 minutes, 43 seconds off the lead of Mathieu van der Poel. Five categorized climbs and nearly four hours later, Van der Poel finished more than 20 minutes off the pace. The Dutchman relinquished the lead he had held for six days when he faded fast midway through the brutal stage.
Wout van Aert remained in second place but fell from 30 seconds behind at the start of the stage to 1 minute, 48 seconds behind Pogacar.
Richard Carapaz finished more than three minutes behind Pogacar, slipping to five minutes back overall in fifth.
Pogacar solidified his bid to retain his Tour title after proving once again to be a step above the rest on the most demanding ascents. He set off on his own on the fourth climb, shedding Carapaz, the last man — and possible contender — to have kept on his wheel.
Pogacar finished the 151-kilometer (94-mile) route from Oyonnax to Le Grand-Bornand in fourth place, seconds behind stage winner Dylan Teuns.
Teuns, a Belgian rider for the Bahrain team, managed to conserve a slim lead over the hard-pushing Pogacar over the final peak before negotiating the tricky descent to the finish line.
While almost the entire field suffered from the climbs in the rain and low temperatures, Pogacar saw the opportunity to turn the race on its head.
“In the end I felt great, so before the last two climbs I said to my teammates, ’Let’s try and shake up the race,” Pogacar said.
Shake it up? He crushed it.
On Sunday, riders face a second day in the Alps with a 90-mile ride over four passes before a summit finish at Tignes. But given the gaps, even the top teams may be focusing on stage wins or the second and third spots on the podium.
The peloton was in poor shape to hold up in the mountains after a crash-filled opening week and Friday’s marathon 155-mile haul. The longest stage in the Tour in 21 years had exhausted all but a handful of riders.
And more pain was in store.
In an omen for what was to come, several cyclists were already struggling right from the start. The short ascent under steady rainfall heading into the Alpine forest broke the pack into bits.
Geraint Thomas, winner of the 2018 Tour, soon fell behind. Primoz Roglic quickly followed and his Jumbo Visma team left last year’s runner-up sadly alone. Both pre-race title hopefuls, who took tumbles in the first week, completely disconnected even before the serious ascents started.
Pogacar timed his devastating attack until the category-one Col de Romme.
While other riders were hunched over the handlebars, Pogacar rode high, raising off his seat to power ahead in pursuit of the breakaway riders.
Again showing that he does not need much help from his Emirates team, Pogacar rode the final 30 kilometers up and over the category-one Col de la Colombiere all on his own.
Pogacar made Tour history by becoming the youngest post-World War II champion at 21 last year when he stunned Roglic on the race’s penultimate day, overtaking his fellow countryman with a blistering time trial.
His display on the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombiere is poised to be remembered as the defining moment of this edition barring a dramatic change of fortune.
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