The unrelenting Tadej Pogacar has taken back-to-back stage wins in the Tour de France, winning the first summit finish of the 2022 edition here in the Vosges mountains and increasing his overall lead.
The defending champion, who also won stage six in Longwy, fought back after his closest rival, Jonas Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma, launched a fierce attack on the final steep section of gravel road to the finish line. With his family and fiancee watching at the roadside, Pogacar overhauled the Dane to win the stage and leads Vingegaard by 35 seconds.
“It was difficult to win today,” Pogacar said. “I think Vingegaard is right now one of the strongest climbers in the world, probably the best climber in the world, a really compact rider with a strong team around him. So far he’s riding really good and we know in cycling that no gap is enough.”
Of his first week in the 2022 Tour Pogacar said: “It’s been a really great seven days for me. Two stage wins, the yellow jersey, but this Tour is far from finished. We saw today that many guys are super strong and it’s going to be tough next week with so many mountains. Today was just one climb. There are not huge gaps and everything is still open. We will do everything to defend the yellow jersey.”
Behind the pair, Vingegaard’s teammate Primoz Roglic, seemingly recovered from the shoulder dislocation he suffered when taken down by a stray hay bale on stage five to Arenberg, showed a resurgence of his best form to finish third on the stage, while Geraint Thomas clung on to move into third place overall.
Thomas and his teammate Adam Yates had matched Pogacar for most of the final ascent, but when the attacks came on the brutal gravel ramps they struggled to keep pace.
Waved through by his final support rider, Rafal Majka, Pogacar moved to the front of the leading group and accelerated, his all-yellow kit barely visible in the dust clouds enveloping the riders.
Among those to fall away on the steep slopes were Aleksandr Vlasov, leader of the Bora-Hansgrohe team and the American talent Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) who had started the stage placed second overall, four seconds behind Pogacar.
With Thomas moving into the top three and Yates fourth overall, the Ineos Grenadiers team manager, Rod Ellingworth, acknowledged that his riders must be ready to exploit any moment of weakness from the defending champion.
“This will be about taking an opportunity when it comes up,” he said. “Everyone knows in this whole peloton that Pogacar is the outright favourite. He’s a phenomenal talent. This is exactly where we expected to be.”
But he also accepted that Pogacar was unlikely to be beaten. “If you went man to man and it was all purely physical, then no. The guy is physically better than anybody else, but the Tour is the Tour and you just don’t know what’s around the corner. Obviously Pogacar is where he was last year, which isn’t a surprise really.”
But Ellingworth also dismissed the suggestion that in the face of Pogacar’s dominance his riders needed extra motivation. “They know the game, they’ve been around long enough, they know what they’re up against,” he said. “The difference is that it confirms where the guy is. Until you hit the first climbs, you don’t know where everyone is.
“One thing’s clear, his team are struggling. It looks to me that they’re not particularly running at full strength. I don’t know, but are they sick? Something’s happening. There’ll come a time when he needs the team.”
Ellingworth suggested too that Jumbo-Visma’s rollercoaster Tour was panning out as he had predicted. “There was a high chance that one of them would be out of the GC [contest] because of a crash or something. They seem to have been very nervous around the peloton, as a team.”
But he insisted that his team’s pursuit of overall victory in Paris was not over. “We all want to win,” Ellingworth said. “We’ve done a lot of winning and we’ve loved every minute. Success for me isn’t just about winning, success is having a really good support staff, people who are constantly ambitious, young bike riders who are pushing the older guys, that to me is exciting.”
Based on yet another incredible performance from cycling’s 23-year-old Slovenian prodigy, that might be the most Ellingworth can hope for.