The youngest winner of the Tour de France in a century rode into the city of light at sunset on Sunday, looking every inch the awestruck kid, as Tadej Pogacar became the first Slovenian to take the yellow jersey. On Friday night, it had been his friend, Primoz Roglic, who had been planning a party in Paris. But less than 24 hours later, in a sporting robbery to match Manchester United’s defeat of Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, Pogacar, who will be 22 on Monday, had trampled all over his countryman’s best-laid plans.
In a time-trial performance to the top of La Planche des Belles Filles that drew multiple superlatives and, this being the Tour, a few raised eyebrows, Pogacar stormed through Roglic’s 57-seconds advantage to beat the long-term race leader by almost two minutes. It was his third stage win of the race, adding to his mountain stage wins in Laruns and Grand Colombier.
Some, including the four-times Tour winner, Chris Froome, had predicted Roglic might fade and they were proved right. Without the protection of his team, the 30‑year‑old wilted, fighting the gradient and struggling with a new aerodynamic helmet that grew increasingly lopsided as his torment increased.
“It didn’t work so good, huh?” Roglic said, dryly, of his new helmet, before adding: “I struggled with everything.”
Pogacar, in contrast, was unerring as an arrow, attacking the climb with speed and purpose. Even before the last time check, Roglic’s goose was clearly cooked. By the time Roglic laboured into the final 100m, Pogacar and his management team were jumping for joy.
“I just went deep,” Pogacar said. “I knew the climb very well and I went flat out from bottom to top. My dream was just to be in the Tour and now I’ve won.”
Roglic, meanwhile, sat gasping on the road, comforted by the two Jumbo-Visma teammates, Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert, who had given him the most support. Roglic took some time to compose himself but when he did meet the media late on Saturday evening, he was gracious and without any bitterness.
“I will cry,” he said. “I did already, but it was how it is. I want it to be different, but I can’t change it.
“I just need to go on. Tadej was in a different world and he definitely deserves his win so really, congratulations to him.
“I didn’t know I was going to have a bad day, but I was just losing and losing. I was hoping Tadej would have some hard moments, so I was trying to believe in myself the whole race, but I was very far from it.”
It was a fitting end to a race that almost did not happen and that had a strange atmosphere throughout, from the masked team presentations in Nice, to the positive test for Covid-19, not EPO, of the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, and to a socially distanced thumbs-up shared by Roglic and the President, Emmanuel Macron, last Friday.
Barring a couple of tedious stages that resembled an upmarket sportive, there has been plenty to write home about. If, in the absence of Froome and Geraint Thomas, British interest in the yellow jersey was at its lowest for a decade, the generational change sweeping through the peloton was engrossing.
Old lags such as Alejandro Valverde, of Movistar, a veteran of 27 Grand Tours, will soon have to step aside. The kids – from the irrepressible Pogacar, to Van Aert and his teammate Sepp Kuss, to Marc Hirschi, of Team Sunweb, Enric Mas, of Movistar and Neilson Powless and Dani Martínez, of Education First – have all made their mark.
The past two Tour winners, Pogacar and Egan Bernal, have been among the youngest in history. With Froome moving to pastures new and Thomas celebrating his 35th birthday next May, the Ineos Grenadiers chief, Dave Brailsford, is also turning to youth. Bernal misfired badly but at 23, he has plenty of time to rediscover his mojo.
“When you look at the life cycle of our team, there’s an older, very successful group over on one side, and then a younger, up and coming group,” Brailsford said on Saturday. “Jumbo are right smack in the middle of that maturity curve. So, it’s a transition really. But we’re bringing in some experience and some new young talent and we’re building again.”
Tom Pidcock, from Leeds, the former junior, world and European Under-23 champion is among the highly rated riders now confirmed as joining next year.
Brailsford batted away suggestions that Bernal’s leadership status had been damaged by his failed title defence. “To start with, we sat tight and on that first rest day we were in a really strong position. But then in that period between the first rest day and the second rest day Egan pulled out,” he said.
“He’ll be back. It’s been a big year for him and I’m sure this experience will give him real drive and focus.”
Bernal and Brailsford will have to contend with the march of the Slovenians. Despite the murky histories of some members of his team management, Pogacar’s youthful success was embraced by the race organisation. He raps, he uses TikTok, he rides like it is fun.
Stalked by a pandemic, rejected by some as old-school and craving a younger following, ‘Pog’ is, for the moment at least, the breath of fresh air Prudhomme and the Tour needed.