Two weeks from Paris, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) has already distanced all rivals at this Tour de France with striking ease, but shaking off suspicions might prove a little more demanding. Maybe it was ever thus for the yellow jersey in the 21st century.
Pogačar’s late heist at last year’s race meant that he was largely spared the press room scrutiny that has been more or less de rigueur for the maillot jaune since the Lance Armstrong era. This time out, with a lead of over five minutes on everyone bar Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën Team), the 22-year-old will likely sit in press conferences every day from here to the Champs-Élysées.
After almost nonchalantly putting another half a minute into rivals on the final climb to Tignes on Sunday afternoon, Pogačar was asked if he understood that his dominance was likely to inspire doubts, but a seemingly garbled video connection from the press room meant that he answered a different question entirely.
The question arose again during Pogačar’s (very) short video briefing with the international press during Monday’s rest day, which eventually amounted to just three questions apiece from three selected journalists. As the 10 allotted minutes drew towards a close, the yellow jersey was asked how he would allay the concerns of those who doubted the probity of his performances.
“I think we have many controls to prove them wrong,” Pogačar said. “I know, for example, that yesterday, I had three controls in one day – two before the stage and one after. So I think that gives enough weight to prove them wrong.”
Perhaps coincidentally, that was the final question granted to the 90 or so international journalists who had logged in to Pogačar’s rest day press conference, with the remainder of the time dedicated to Slovenian-language media.
Pogačar’s dominance at this Tour has perhaps been accentuated by the travails of his putative challengers. Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) was always the man most likely to threaten his pre-eminence, but his fellow Slovenian’s crash on stage 3 eventually forced him out of the race on Sunday morning.
Ineos Grenadiers’ Tour was compromised by Geraint Thomas’ dislocated shoulder, but while Richard Carapaz (fifth at 5:33) has put up the most resistance to Pogačar to date, the team’s marquee rider, Egan Bernal, is at home in Colombia after annexing the Giro d’Italia.
In the absence of obvious rivals, Pogačar appears, as Le Monde suggested on Monday morning, “a pro racing against schoolboys.”
“I’m pretty happy with how my shape is. I did expect something like this for my numbers,” said Pogačar. “But this Tour has been really difficult from the start with a lot of crashes and for sure it affected a lot of riders. That also cost them a lot of energy, probably. I was almost untouched, I just had one crash, really small, so it didn’t affect me.”
Pogačar cruised to victory in the Laval time trial on stage 5 and then moved into the maillot jaune with a crushing display on the Col de Romme and Col de la Colombière on Saturday, when he put 3:20 into Carapaz et al in barely more than 30 kilometres. Just nine stages into the Tour, only 10 riders remain with 10 minutes – or one rest day video conference – of Pogačar in the overall standings.
The terrain ahead gives Pogačar ample opportunity to stretch his lead out to the kind not seen since Laurent Fignon put more than 10 minutes into the second-placed Bernard Hinault at the 1984 Tour de France. On that occasion, Fignon claimed five stage victories, including summit finish triumphs at La Plagne and Crans-Montana, and his remorseless exhibition was perhaps partly inspired by a desire to prove that his unexpected 1983 victory had not come about by chance. There is a faint echo to be found in Pogačar’s 2021 Tour.
“Really one of the biggest motivations was that, to show it was not a one-time thing to win the Tour just based on one time trial,” said Pogačar. “I wanted to be good again this year. All the race I’m motivated to prove myself and show the world what I can do.”
Pogačar downplayed the idea, however, that he wanted to make a particular mark on the history of the Tour on Wednesday, when the race makes its novel double ascent of Mont Ventoux, a climb where the romantic myths and brutal realities of the race have so often coalesced.
“It’s a pretty historical climb. I know some of the history, I don’t know it all,” said Pogačar.
“Yeah, it’s a really nice climb. I did it also for a recon. And for sure I want to be good on Mont Ventoux. But I don’t really drive myself from the historical standpoint on the Mont Ventoux stage.”