As Thaddeus Pogachar and Primoz Roglic took their heads in their hands, seconds after completing Saturday’s penultimate stage of the Tour de France, neither seemed able to process what had just happened.
The 21-year-old Pogacar had just presented the best performance of his young career, destroying Roglic’s 57-second lead and finding the most likely overwhelming lead from his own participation on Sunday, the last day of the race. The result ensures that he will enter Paris for the traditionally festive final stage, wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, and positioning him so that he, and not Roglic, the tour leader for the past two weeks, becomes the first Slovenian pilot to won the race.
“Unforgettable,” Pogachar said as his emotions took over.
A few feet away, Roglic, his good friend, was sitting on the sidewalk, speechless, struggling to catch his breath.
“I think I’m dreaming,” Pogachar said later. Then he broke off: Roglic had come to greet him, and they hugged. Roglic was stunned.
“I didn’t push hard enough,” he said. “I drove without the strength I needed.”
Pogacar, from the UAE Emirates team, will become the youngest winner of the Tour de France in the post-World War II era and the second youngest champion in history. He also led the races for the best climber and best young rider, completing a tour in which he showed his breadth of skills to compete on level roads, mountain passes and finally alone against the clock.
The scene on Saturday ended in an impressive match between Pogacar and Roglic and turned the tables around after Roglic skillfully stopped Pogacar’s attacks for more than a week.
The 30-year-old Roglic has been leading the tour since his ninth stage and never seems to have been threatened. He was backed by his teammates at Jumbo-Visma, who kept up the pace while defending their leader at the helm of the peloton, riding alongside him as he kept Pogacar from freeing day after day.
But while Roglic rode alone on Saturday, he disintegrated as much as Pogacar shone, and at the end of the stage their positions changed: Roglic, who led 57 seconds in the overall standings before the time trial, was 59 seconds behind Pogacar.
“I just went from top to bottom with full petrol,” Pogachar said of the last hill of the time trial, where he confirmed his victory on the stage. The commentary embodies both his performance on Saturday and his races throughout his three-week trip to France with a delayed pandemic race.
The match between Roglic and Pogakar was joined on the hills of Massif Central earlier this month, but it took place entirely in the French Alps when the race entered its final week on Tuesday. Until then, it became clear that the winner of the Tour de France in 2020 will be one of the two men.
Slovenian flags have been present on the side of the road in recent days as Roglic and Pogacar have been lurking in the mountainous landscapes of France, riding side by side or one behind the other, but never too far.
Roglic was one of the favorites in the race from the start, and Pogacar was no stranger. The winner of the 2019 edition of the California tour, Pogacar illuminated the Tour de France this year in several mountain stages, winning two of them while trying in vain to gain time on Roglic.
Still, when Pogachar tried to leave, Roglic remained positioned right on his rear wheel. “I’m not doing any favors to Thaddeus,” Roglic said last Sunday after finishing a few seconds behind his compatriot in the 15th stage.
However, the duel between the two Slovenes did not start on French roads, but at home. In June, Pogacar defeated Roglic in the Slovenian national championship in a race with just nine seconds, a week after Roglic claimed the national car title, 10 seconds ahead of Pogacar.
The two then took their cat and mouse game to France and it appeared entirely on the hills of Stage 13. While Pogacar eliminated last year’s winner, Egan Bernal, from second place in the overall standings, Roglic made it clear that he did not allow Pogacar to he went further into his lead: he was riding right behind him, and the two of them finished the scene together.
Pogacar said he and Roglic were not friends during the last miles of the day and that more rivalry would come. At the time, the two Slovenians were followed by four Colombians in the overall standings, and many believed that Bernal, who finished third, could return.
Two days later, in the 15th stage last Sunday, Pogacar won his second stage and once again Roglic was behind the wheel, without giving him a chance to reduce the difference in the standings. But they had used that day to release Bernal, the defending champion who later dropped out of the race, and take the reins of the event forever.
“He is unstoppable,” Pogacar told Roglic at the time.
A week later, the word refers to Pogakar.