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Tadej Pogacar at imperious best with stage 17 victory on Col du Portet

They huffed and they puffed but yet again none of his main rivals were able to blow Tour de France leader Tadej Pogacar’s house down as the defending champion claimed an imperious win at the top of the Col de Portet in the French Pyrenees.

In what Pogacar had labelled the hardest stage of the Tour, he appeared to be in total control. Behind the 22-year-old, in what was effectively a race within the race, Jonas Vingegaard of the Jumbo Visma team, and Richard Carapaz, riding for Ineos Grenadiers, scrapped between each other to ensure they achieved a top three finish in Paris.

In fact, Carapaz spent most of the final kilometres grimacing in Pogacar’s wake, then attacked as the trio entered the short tunnel leading to the final thousand metres, leaving Vingegaard behind. Pogacar however was unperturbed by the Ecuadorian rider’s cunning.

“I was expecting everything, that’s why I was more or less setting the pace,” the 2020 Tour winner said. “You need to be careful every time, because with three guys, everyone wants to win and drop each other so everybody plays their own tactic. So I was expecting something like this.”

Pushed on his reaction to Carapaz’s tactics, he responded: “I don’t see any problem with people attacking. It’s a bike race and it was a super race. I enjoyed it. Everyone has a chance to attack, so everyone will grab it.”

Pogacar, leader of the UAE Emirates team, dominated the Bastille Day stage, from Muret to the Col du Portet. On the mighty 16-kilometre climb of the Portet, it was the Slovenian who drove the pace at the decisive moments and finally emerged through the mountain mist to claim his second stage win in this year’s Tour. “It’s a never-ending story,” he said of the Col du Portet ascent.

“It’s super long, a bad road the last eight kilometres and it never finishes. It’s hard, but I did enjoy the climb, even though it’s one of the hardest in this Tour.”

“We worked a lot this Tour,” Pogacar said of his teammates. “Even on one sprint stage, we had to pull all day. We suffered a lot on the front and today was the perfect day to control the breakaway.

“It was only six riders and with a final like this we knew we could go for the stage and try to win. After the first climb everyone was feeling great, and we just went all in.”

Behind him, the cluster of closely positioned rivals began to crack apart. Vingegaard and Carapaz moved clear of their rivals for the Paris podium, Rigoberto Uran of the EF Education Nippo team, and Australian Ben O’Connor, riding for AG2R Citroen, who were cut adrift in the final kilometres of the climb.

Suddenly it was apparent who the three strongest riders in the peloton were, as Pogacar expertly controlled Carapaz and Vingegaard in the final steepest sections of the Portet ascent. A series of accelerations from the race leader in the final two kilometres, emphasised the depth of his reserves, but failed to dislodge his two companions.

Watched on the final climb by his girlfriend and his family, a moment in which he said he felt “pure joy,” Pogacar refused to accept that his second Tour de France success is now assured.

“The Tour is over on the Champs Élysées, on the last lap on the finish line. There can be a lot of bad luck in cycling. I can touch wood — my head — I don’t like to think about it.”

There is now one mountain stage to come, to the winding hairpins of Luz Ardiden. It is hard to imagine a dissimilar scenario to what we have seen already, of Pogacar’s comtinued dominance and the growing dogfight between Carapaz and Vingegaard, now separated by a mere four seconds, for second place overall in Paris.

Meanwhile, Mark Cavendish, winner of four stages in this year’s race, was well-supported by Deceuninck – Quick-Step teammmates and survived the brutal stage to maintain his 36-point lead in the green points jersey classification, over Australian rival, Michael Matthews.