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Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

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Tadej Pogacar stuns Primoz Roglic, set to win Tour de France

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Tadej Pogacar overtook countryman Primoz Roglic and is set to become the youngest Tour de France champion since 1904, the second-youngest in history and the first Slovenian champion.

Pogacar, who turns 22 on Monday, overcame a 57-second deficit to Roglic and won Saturday’s penultimate stage, a 22-mile time trial with a finishing four-mile climb. He is 59 seconds ahead of Roglic after three weeks and 84 hours of total racing.

“Actually, my dream was just to be [in] the Tour de France,” Pogacar said. “I cannot believe it, and if you ask me in one week, one month, I will still not believe it, probably.”

Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place after 55 minutes on the roads. Roglic was fifth.

It’s reminiscent of American Greg LeMond surpassing Frenchman Laurent Fignon in the time trial finale of the 1989 Tour.

That final margin was the closest in Tour history — eight seconds. This one would be the 11th time in Tour history that the difference is less than a minute, according to ProCyclingStats.com.

“I struggled with everything, just not enough power,” Roglic said. “I was just more and more without the power that I obviously needed. I was just really giving everything till the end.”

Australian Richie Porte will join Pogacar and Roglic on the podium after moving up from fourth place going into the time trial. Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez, who came into the day in third, dropped to sixth.

It’s the first time since 2007 that everybody on the final Tour de France podium will be there for the first time.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Sunday’s finale is the traditional ceremonial ride into Paris where the overall leaders don’t attack each other.

Pogacar is riding his first Tour de France and in his second season as a professional cyclist with a World Tour team.

Last September, he finished third in the Vuelta a Espana, one of three Grand Tours, which Roglic won. At the time, Pogacar became the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

“I knew that I can be with the best, that I can follow,” after the Vuelta, Pogacar said, “but I never thought that I would win already this year, especially in this season that was really strange.”

UAE Team Emirates initially planned to use Pogacar to support Fabio Aru, but the Slovenian’s continued emergence changed the plan.

“I’m going [to the Tour] firstly to learn,” Pogacar said in May. “But if I have a chance to show what I can do, I will.”

Pogacar was Robin to Roglic’s Batman for most of this Tour.

Roglic wore the yellow jersey as race leader the last two weeks. heading the dominant Jumbo-Visma team. Pogacar donned the white jersey for the highest-placed rider 25 and under, though he was on a weaker team.

But when they went head-to-head on climbs, Pogacar usually stuck with Roglic, sometimes riding away from him.

When it came down to the final climb on Saturday, with no team support in what they call the race of truth, Pogacar showed who was the strongest Slovenian.

“[Roglic] was really superior through the whole Tour,” Pogacar said. “He must be devastated, but that’s bike racing, I guess. Today I beat him, and that was it.”

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Slovenia is dominating the Tour de France, and its president is loving it

Primoz Roglic, Tadej Pogacar
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About 20 minutes after Slovenians Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič finished in first and second place in the Tour de France’s 15th stage on Sunday, Slovenian president Borut Pahor tweeted an image of two autographed Roglič jerseys captioned with a prevailing sentiment.

The Tour de France is becoming the Tour de Slovenia.

As the world’s greatest bike race enters its final weekend, Roglič and Pogačar remain first and second in the overall standings. They’ve survived the toughest mountain stages.

Roglič, a pre-race co-favorite, will very likely become the first Slovenian to win the Tour. Pogačar, who rides for a different team, will likely join him on one of the two other podium spots in Paris on Sunday.

It’s an incredible story. Slovenia’s population is that of New Mexico (about two million people). It’s smaller than New Hampshire. And now it has the top two athletes in one of the most storied sporting events in the world.

“As Primoz was joking in France a couple of days ago,” Slovenian journalist Uroš Gramc said, “it is only two million of us, but we are all super athletes.”

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

That includes Pahor, a 56-year-old playfully dubbed “Europe’s Instagram President.”

Pahor, a former prime minister, has for the last eight years occupied the more ceremonial presidential role. He has every bit the panache of a Grand Tour patron.

His Instagram includes photos with Naomi Campbell and Bono and of his head photoshopped on a flying Superman. Slovenian media and Politico reported on a 2015 Pahor calendar where Mr. April was the president ironing in blue overalls.

Pahor, nicknamed “Barbie” and a fashion model before his political career took off, is most proud these days of Roglič and Pogačar.

“He watches the stages of the Tour of France as often as he can, considering his work obligations,” his office emailed this week. “He also follows the two grand cycling competitions of Spain and Italy, i.e. La Vuelta and Giro di Italia. As well as, of course, the Tour of Slovenia.”

Pahor has long followed the ascent of the 30-year-old Roglič, a former world junior champion ski jumper who didn’t own a bike when he started racing in his early 20s.

In 2017, Roglič (nicknamed “Rogla”) became the first Slovenian to win a stage of the Tour de France. A Pahor tweet the next morning included a stick-figure drawing on presidential stationery summarizing the victory.

In 2018, Pahor and Roglič met for the first time.

“They planted a maple tree that is still growing in the park of Villa Podrožnik,” according to the president’s office. “The maple is a symbol of strength and endurance, which Primož personifies. The President has promised that if Primož wins The Tour, they would both plant a linden tree (the symbol of Slovenia).”

The president has also met the 21-year-old Pogačar while receiving a number of Slovenian cyclists at the presidential palace in June 2019. Pogačar can become the youngest Tour de France podium finisher since 1909, according to ProCyclingStats.com.

Slovenia has a rich recent history of sports achievements — from Tina Maze‘s two Olympic Alpine skiing titles to just about anything Luka Doncic does these days. Doncic also tweeted congrats to Roglič and Pogačar as the nation catches Tour fever.

“Before my departure to France people were watching Tour in bars, that never happened before,” Gramc said.

Slovenian cycling has been working toward this moment. They first had professionals in the 1980s, before the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Each generation took a step, from merely finishing the Tour to winning stages in Grand Tours to Roglič and Pogačar finishing first and third at the 2019 Vuelta. Now, Slovenia has directors of World Tour teams, Gramc said.

“So we’ve grown a lot, maybe the time has come,” Gramc said. “But there definitely is the coincidence that two cyclists are on the top of the [Tour de France], this is just incredible, no one expected. We have to respect that and enjoy it. Maybe it will never happen again although Roglic and Pogacar are far from ending their careers.”

Pahor is an avid endurance athlete. He regularly completes the Ljubljana half marathon in under two hours, has raced duathlons and triathlons and posts photos of himself riding in Jumbo-Visma jerseys (Roglič’s team) on Instagram.

On Wednesday, Roglič and Pogačar finished second and third in the toughest stage of the Tour, keeping Slovenia in first and second overall and bringing the dream closer.

“It’s not over yet,” Pahor tweeted, according to a translation, “but closer to heaven every day.”

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