THE Slovenian superstar wins again – with Australia’s new star set for a life-changing result, writes JOHN TREVORROW:
TWO brutal summit finishes in the Pyrenees have confirmed what we all virtually knew anyway – Tadej Pogacar will win the Tour de France for the second year running.
But the battle for the two lower spots on the podium will be decided in the 30.8 km individual time trial on the penultimate day..
Pogacar (Team Emirates) won his second straight mountain top finish on stage 18 to Luz Ardiden with another dominating performance, and although he looked the strongest on both days, he could not ride clear of his two main rivals, Dane Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo Visma) and Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) who finished second and third both days.
At the line Pogačar looked by far the freshest and his trademark smile was plastered over his face as he crossed the final summit finish.
“It’s unbelievable. After yesterday, then today … I don’t know, I felt good and I’m really happy with the win,” the Slovenian superstar said. “It’s crazy. It was a game for me since I first started and I’m enjoying playing it. I’m super happy. You never know. It’s still three days to go but it looks good.”
Pogacar, who is still only 22 looks set to repeat his trifecta of last year winning the yellow jersey as well as the polka dot climbers jersey and the white jersey of best young rider. The only other rider to do that was a 24 year old Eddy Merckx in his first tour in 1969.
Only Stefan Kung (Groupama FDJ) stands in the way of a fourth stage win for the Yellow clad Slovenian. The Swiss specialist was only 19 seconds back in the stage 5 race against the clock.
Australian Ben O’Connor looked the best of the rest and has now moved up to fourth spot with the collapse of Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education). Riding his first Tour de France the young man from Subiaco has been rock solid.
Following his brilliant win last week in to Tigne, O’Connor has shown that he will be a major player in Grand Tours for many years to come.
As on Wednesday’s Col du Portet, O’Connor was unable to match Pogačar’s attack with three kms remaining up to Luz Ardiden. But he dug in and now looks set to finish fourth overall. He finished with Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) only 34 seconds down on Pogačar and holds just over half a minute advantage over Kelderman in the overall standings.
“I didn’t feel as good as a did yesterday, but I was able to get through and to be sitting 4th is even better, it’s a good day for me and for the team,” O’Connor said atop the final mountain, Luz Ardiden.
“I think the last week of a Grand Tour suits me quite well. I didn’t feel super great compared to yesterday, but I was able to still get through. And me and Wilco are exactly the same, so I guess it’s a bit of a fight in the TT on Saturday and we’ll see who’s going to be fourth or fifth.”
He starts tomorrow’s crucial race against the clock with a 32 second buffer on Kelderman, and it should be enough. The Dutchman was seven seconds quicker in the stage 5 individual time trial over a similar distance but when it comes to the final days of a grand tour it’s who has got the most petrol left in the tank.
O’Connor has shown he is a natural grand tour rider after finishing second and then the very next day winning a stage in the final week at last year’s Giro d’Italia. He has shown that same gritty determination this week.
“Yeah, kind of dogged, isn’t it? Just dragging myself as far as I can up each mountain,” said O’Connor. “I know that suits me. I like this kind of racing, you’ve seen me suffering and I’m maybe not being the most special looking rider, but I’m still sitting fourth and it feels special to me.”Embed from Getty Images
There is no doubt O’Connor’s profile is going to change quite a bit. Becoming a mountain stage winner and finishing in the top five of the Tour de France is a life changing experience. If he manages to hang on to fourth overall, he will become the third highest place Australian finisher in the Tour. Only 2011 winner Cadel Evans and last year’s third place Richie Porte have finished higher. Next is Phil Anderson who was twice fifth in the 1980s.
“Yeah, maybe, but I’m still going to be exactly the same bloke and that won’t change,” O’Connor said. “That’s the main aspect I want to keep. Maybe other aspects of the racing scene will change but for me as a person, I’m still Ben O’Connor and I’m not going to be turning into a bad bloke any time soon.”
Michael Matthews managed to gain one green jersey point back from Mark Cavendish on stage 17 and then lose a couple on stage 18 to be 38 points down, but with the tough challenges out of the way the Manx Missile looks just too fast for the talented Aussie to close that gap. Matthews has been impressive in his quest for a second green jersey and his BikeExchange team have given it their best but only a crash or mechanical in the final stage can rob Cavendish from this well-deserved victory.