Tadej Pogacar wore the yellow jersey in Paris to win his second consecutive Tour de France on Sunday after an exhausting three-week odyssey that he sometimes passed off as a leisure ride.
Pogacar’s repeated success in the biggest cycling event was a story of total domination, prompting a question: at 22, how many more laps can the Slovenian win?
Pogacar won his first title last September when he became the youngest Tour champion in 116 years. He is now the youngest double winner of the race.
Unlike last year, when as a rookie he had to wait until the penultimate stage to take the lead in the general classification, Pogacar was untouchable in this race.
His team were better equipped and better prepared, and Pogacar assumed the favorite coat with the ease of a seasoned veteran. His supremacy was such that in addition to his overall victory, he also won the title of King of the Mountain and Best Young Rider.
UAE leader Team Emirates successfully defended his huge 5-minute and 20-second lead over runner-up Jonas Vingegaard in the final, mostly ceremonial stage to the Champs-Elysées on Sunday. Richard Carapaz finished third overall, 7:03 off the pace.
Vingegaard and Carapaz were the only riders to finish within 10 minutes of the double champion.
“I did my best, to the maximum, as I always do, and that was enough,” said Pogacar.
Wout van Aert won stage 21 in a mass sprint. This prevented Mark Cavendish from breaking Belgian great Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage victories, which the British sprinter equaled earlier in the race.
The mostly flat 108-kilometer (67-mile) portion started in Chatou just outside of Paris and ended with eight laps up and down the famous avenue.
Pogacar and his teammates rode together at the front of the pack as they reached the Champs-Elysees, and the Slovenian champion raised his fist in the air in celebration.
Pogacar’s gesture served as a signal to those who were fighting for a prestigious stage victory as the first acceleration took place. But the efforts of the attackers did not pay off and the stage ended with a massive sprint.
Cavendish, who consoled himself with the green jersey for top sprinter, hit the handlebars in frustration after van Aert pushed Jasper Philipsen over the line. Cavendish was third.
Van Aert, a versatile 26-year-old Belgian with exceptional skills on all terrains, became the first competitor since 1979 to win a sprint, a mountain stage and an individual time trial in the same edition of the Tour.
As for Pogacar, the only crack in his armor came during the Mont Ventoux stage in week two, when he was briefly dumped by Vingegaard on the iconic mountain’s second ascent. But Pogacar showed calm and poise that day to catch up with his rival and was left unscathed.
Apart from this fear, Pogacar’s journey was flawless and ruthless.
After his superb performance in the first time trial he was in a class of his own in the Alps and took the lead with a vintage long distance attack in excruciating weather. He then completed demolition work in the Pyrenees with two prestigious stage victories to become the fourth rider in Tour history to win back-to-back summits in the world’s biggest cycling race.
Even Merckx, the five-time Tour champion widely regarded as the greatest winner of all time, was impressed.
“I see him as the new ‘Cannibal’,” said Merckx, who earned the nickname for his ruthless will to win. “He can certainly win the Tour de France more than five times.”
Pogacar won praise for his offensive mentality and ambition to deliver in all types of races. This season he has linked his first Tour triumph to victories in the UAE Tour, Tirenno-Adriatico and the prestigious one-day classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
But as always in the Tour de France when a competitor outclasses the peloton, Pogacar’s dominant conduct has also raised suspicion. He was asked this week about UAE Team Emirates chief executive Mauro Gianetti’s ties to riders who have received doping suspensions in the past.
Gianetti was previously the manager of Saunier Duval, the team of Riccardo Ricco, an Italian runner who tested positive for CERA, a blood-increasing drug in 2008. He was also manager of Juan Jose’s Geox-TMX team. Cobo, who was stripped of his 2011 Spanish Vuelta title for doping violations.
“I can only speak for myself,” Pogacar said. “When I met Mauro he was really great with me, and he’s a great good person. I believe the past is a thing of the past, and this new cycling is a much more beautiful sport than before.”
Pogacar insisted that the repeated doping controls he endured should be enough to convince skeptics that he is riding clean.
“I think we have a lot of checks to prove them wrong,” said Pogacar on the first day of rest of the race.
Pogacar’s dominance was helped by the woes of two of his biggest rivals, last year’s runner-up Primoz Roglic and former Tour champion Geraint Thomas, who crashed in the marred first week of racing. ‘accidents and never recovered. More importantly, 2019 champion Egan Bernal skipped the Tour this year after his Giro victory in May. The Colombian climber is only 24 years old, has excellent time trial skills and is expected to be Pogacar’s main rival for years to come.
Meanwhile, Pogacar will fly to the Tokyo Olympics where he will be among the favorites for the gold medal in the road race.
“Anyone who can follow Tadej will be close to victory,” van Aert said.