Tadej Pogacar dealt a demoralizing blow to his remaining Tour de France rivals on the first day in the Alps, where the defending champion claimed the yellow jersey in Saturday’s grueling eighth stage.
Pogacar strengthened his bid to retain his Tour title after proving once again to be a step above the rest on the most-demanding ascents. The 22-year-old Slovenian set off on his own on the fourth of five categorized climbs, shedding Richard Carapaz, the last man — and possible contender — to have kept on his wheel.
“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.
Pogacar finished the 150.8-kilometer (93.7-mile) trek over five mountain passes 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.
Mathieu van der Poel relinquished the lead he had held for six days when he faded fast midway through the brutal stage, finishing more than 20 minutes after the winner.
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.
Carapaz finished over three minutes behind Pogacar and the Ecuadorian is now five minutes back overall in fifth.
The peloton was in poor shape to hold up in the mountains after a crash-filled opening week and Friday’s marathon 249-kilometer (155-mile) trek. The longest stage in the Tour in 21 years had exhausted all but a handful of riders — including Pogacar.
And more pain was in store in the Alps.
In an omen for what was to come, several cyclists were already struggling right from the start. The short ascent under a light rainfall heading up into the Alpine forest broke the pack into bits.
Geraint Thomas, who won in 2018, 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 had taken tumbles in the first week, completely disconnected even before the serious ascents started.
Pogacar timed his devastating attack until the ascent of the category-one Col de Romme.
While other riders were hunched over the handlebars, Pogacar rode high, raising off his seat to power up the ascent in pursuit of the handful of 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 had lost a big chunk of time he had gained in the time trial earlier this week over Friday’s trek, finishing fifth overall, 3:43 off the pace. He made that up and then some after letting it rip up the rain-slick mountain roads, reinforcing his position as the clear favorite.
On Sunday, riders face a second day in the mountains with a 145-kilometer (90-mile) ride over four passes before a summit finish at Tignes.