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Comment: Tadej Pogacar has not won the Tour de France yet, his rivals must continue to fight for yellow

5 Jul 2021

If Pogacar's rivals give up the chase for yellow, this Tour will become a dead rubber

Words: Joe Robinson Photos: Chris Auld

There was no real need for Tadej Pogacar to attack in the final kilomteres of Sunday’s Tour de France stage. The day before the rest day, already with a 4 minute 30 second buffer on his closest rival for the yellow jersey, it would have made sense for the UAE Team Emirates rider to have played defensively.

Yes, cover the moves from Ineos Grenadiers and Richard Carapaz, but don’t go wasting energy in search of more time. Keep those proverbial matches unburnt, enough damage had been done that week. Don’t go getting greedy, Tadej.

Yet such is the superiority of the 22-year-old Slovenian at this year’s race, banking another 30 seconds in the final 4km on the long, rain-drenched ascent of Montee de Tignes at the end of Stage 9 seemed effortless. Pogacar did not so much attack as just simply ride faster than all of his rivals. When the camera focussed onto the whites of Pogacar’s eyes, projected back was a painless expression. It looked easy for him.

Greed was not on Pogacar’s agenda either – he did not become gluttonous for time. He was just simply riding his bike up a mountain and crushing all those around him in the process. Or as Movistar’s Enric Mas put it: ‘Pogacar rode away from us as if we didn’t even exist.'

And this leaves us in a perilous position as fans as we reflect on the first week of the race. Barring injury or incident, the race for the maillot jaune is over. With 12 stages still to go we are set to witness a near-two week procession into Paris. The road has already decided that Pogacar is the best rider at this race. Nobody will beat him fair and square, he is in a different stratosphere to all those around him.

There is potential for this race to become a stalemate, a dead rubber. The likes of Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo), Enric Mas (Movistar), Wilko Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and all others within the top 10 could just give up as far as overall victory is concerned, accepting their fate and instead enter into a game of tactical chess to reach Paris on the Tour’s podium’s bottom two steps – the cycling equivalent of playing for a draw rather risking defeat to gain a victory.

If this happens, we will witness Pogacar take a velvet carpet ride all the way to his second consecutive Tour title with the occasional exhibition of his strength when he decides it appropriate to ride away from his rivals, which he seemingly can do at will currently. It will also see this Tour, despite all its first week high drama, go down as one to forget.

That is, of course, only as far as the overall is concerned: if a sprinter from the Isle of Man gets two more stage wins and a green jersey you can guarantee a fair few of us will never forget the 2021 Tour de France.

So what needs to happen, what has to happen is not a single one of those General Classification riders needs to give up hope of victory. Each and every one of them needs to fight for yellow until Paris and they need to be willing to lose it all in the process.

It’s easier said than done, mind, risking a podium or top five finish on GC at the Tour to pursue the slimmest of chances that you may end up with a yellow jersey for your efforts. A top five ride at the Tour is career-defining for some, after all.

But the likes of Uran, Mas and others need to realise that this bike race did not end at the Tignes finish line on Sunday afternoon, it ends when the peloton crosses the Champs-Elysees for the final time in 13 days' time. And that before then, this race has mountains, wind, rain, heat, danger and more to contest with. They need to put Pogacar under pressure, expose him to different scenarios, make him take unnecessary risks.

Pogacar is potentially never more than just a single second from going home. Bike racing is fickle, it takes no prisoners and those in this race need to realise that at any moment Pogacar could no longer be there and the entire race could be turned on its head.

Just look at Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas by way of examples. Both were tipped by most before the Tour to be nailed-on podium finishers, minimum. Nine days into the race, Roglic is at home and Thomas is 40 minutes adrift of yellow. This race may seem dead and buried but it is far from it, and Pogacar’s rivals need to believe in the seemingly impossible.

Countless incredible sporting comebacks have occured when it seemed like all was dead and buried because those involved were willing to rip up the script and risk utter humiliation in search of glory. Liverpool’s miracle in Istanbul. Manchester United, 1999 versus Bayern Munich are two such examples from the world of football.

Even in our own sport: Greg LeMond defied the odds to win the 1989 Tour on the final day’s time-trial into Paris, beating Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. And let’s not forget last year’s Tour. When Pogacar did the unthinkable and reversed a 57-second deficit to compatriot Roglic to a 59-second lead on that now-infamous time-trial to La Planche des Belles Filles.

None of these comebacks would have happened if it had not been for sheer and utter self-belief, faith in the impossible, a refusal to believe when you are beaten.

With two weeks of racing to go, all those following in Pogacar’s wake need to take a leaf from the great Sir Alex Ferguson’s book, a man who knew a thing or two about defying the odds, inexplicable comebacks and never knowing when to give up:

‘I've never played for a draw in my life.’