As Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic each took their heads in their hands, seconds after completing Saturday’s penultimate stage of the Tour de France, neither man seemed to be able to process what had just happened.
Pogacar, 21, had just delivered the best performance of his young career, wiping out Roglic’s 57-second lead and opening a most likely insurmountable lead of his own entering Sunday, the race’s final day. The result ensured that he will enter Paris for the traditionally celebratory final stage wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, and positioned him so that he — not Roglic, the leader of the Tour for the past two weeks — will become the first rider from Slovenia to win the race.
Roglic finished fifth in Saturday’s time trial, nearly two minutes behind Pogacar, who earned his third stage win of this year’s Tour by turning in one of the most memorable performances in the race’s illustrious history.
“Unforgettable,” Pogacar said as his emotions overwhelmed him.
Several feet away, Roglic, his good friend, sat on the pavement, speechless and struggling to catch his breath.
“I think I’m dreaming,” Pogacar later said. Then he interrupted himself: Roglic had come to congratulate him, and the two hugged. Roglic was crestfallen.
“I didn’t push enough,” he said. “I rode without the power that I needed.”
Pogacar, of team UAE Emirates, is set to become the youngest winner of the Tour de France in the post-World War II era, and the second youngest champion ever. He also leads in the races for the competition’s best climber and best young rider, capping a Tour in which he showed his breadth of skills racing on flat roads, mountain passes and, finally, alone against the clock.
The stage on Saturday capped an impressive duel between Pogacar and Roglic, and turned the tables after Roglic had expertly held off Pogacar’s attacks for more than a week.
Roglic, 30, had led the Tour since its ninth stage, and he never seemed to be threatened. He was backed by his teammates on the Jumbo-Visma team, who maintained a fast pace while protecting their leader at the head of the peloton, riding alongside him as he kept Pogacar from breaking free day after day.
But as Roglic rode alone on Saturday, he crumbled as much as Pogacar shone, and at the end of the stage, their positions had switched: Roglic, who was leading by 57 seconds in the general classification before the time trial, was left 59 seconds behind Pogacar.
“I just went full gas from bottom to the top,” Pogacar said of the final hill of the time trial, where he cemented his victory in the stage. The comment epitomized both his performance on Saturday, and his racing throughout the race’s three-week, pandemic-delayed trip across France.
The duel between Roglic and Pogacar was joined on the hills of the Massif Central earlier this month, but it fully unfolded in the French Alps when the race entered its final week on Tuesday. By then, it had become clear that the winner of the 2020 Tour de France would be one of the two men.
Slovene flags became more present on the sides of the road on the final days, as Roglic and Pogacar kept stalking each other in France’s mountainous landscapes, riding side by side or one behind another but never too far away.
Roglic was one of the race’s favorites since the start, and Pogacar was not an unknown. The winner of the 2019 edition of the Tour of California, Pogacar lit up the Tour de France this year in several mountain stages, winning two of them as he tried in vain to gain time on Roglic.
Yet whenever Pogacar tried to go, Roglic remained positioned right on his back wheel. “I’m doing Tadej no favor,” Roglic said last Sunday, after finishing a few seconds behind his countryman in the 15th stage.
The duel between the two Slovenes didn’t start on French roads, though, but at home. In June, Pogacar beat Roglic in Slovenia’s national time trial championship by just nine seconds, a week after Roglic had claimed the national road race title, 10 seconds ahead of Pogacar.
The two then took their cat-and-mouse game to France, and it came in full display in the hills on Stage 13. As Pogacar unseated last year’s winner, Egan Bernal, from the second position in the overall standings, Roglic made clear that he would not let Pogacar cut any further into his lead: He rode right behind him, and the two completed the stage together.
Pogacar said he and Roglic weren’t friends during those final miles that day, and that more rivalry would come. At the time, the two Slovenes were followed by four Colombians in the general classification, and many thought that Bernal, ranking third, could come back.
Two days later, in the 15th stage last Sunday, Pogacar won his second stage, and once again Roglic was on his wheel, not giving him a chance to close the gap in the standings. But they had used that day to drop Bernal, the defending champion who later abandoned the race, and take the reins of the event for good.
“He is unstoppable,” Pogacar had said of Roglic then.
A week later, that word applied to Pogacar.