His lead sits at only 11 seconds after a dramatic finish Tuesday, but the two-time defending champion, Tadej Pogacar, seems to have taken control of the Tour de France and is starting to squeeze his competitors out of the race.
With 10 of 21 stages complete, Pogacar, of Slovenia, has already left a prime prerace favorite, his countryman Primoz Roglic, far behind, nearly three minutes back in 13th place. At the moment, only the Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard, who sits in third place, 39 seconds behind, seemingly still has a realistic shot to beat Pogacar. The next two riders in the overall standings, Britain’s Geraint Thomas and Adam Yates, are now more than a minute behind the leader.
Even the rider in second place, Lennard Kämna of Germany, feels more like an outlier than a true challenger for the leader’s yellow jersey; Kämna holds his current position only because he picked up more than eight and a half minutes on the leader by being part of a breakaway group of long shots that included the winner of Tuesday’s stage, Denmark’s Magnus Cort. Almost no one is expecting Kämna to hang around long at the top.
Now with two of the toughest stages of the race looming, including the spectacular climb up the switchbacks of L’Alpe d’Huez on Thursday, Pogacar has a chance to put a hammerlock on the race with 10 days to go.
The Tour is won in the mountains, historians of the race know, but Pogacar threw down the gauntlet in the race’s opening stage on July 1, finishing third in an eight-mile time trial, hardly his specialty.
He took the overall lead last Thursday in Stage 6, a hilly — but not really mountainous — section, by taking advantage of an uphill finish to sprint away from the leading group.
The next day, the race entered the mountains’ proper ending with the Super Planche des Belles Filles in the Alps, a climb that ends with a punishing 24 percent grade on a dirt road. Pogacar led a group that included all the top contenders to chase down a breakaway rider. When they reached him just short of the finish line, Vingegaard looked to take advantage by dashing away from his rivals, and he seemingly had the stage won. But Pogacar found another gear and passed him for back-to-back stage wins.
Impressive showings like that have led some fans and analysts to award Pogacar the overall win already, barring accident, injury or a spectacular loss of form.
If he is going to crack, or if Vingegaard or someone else is going to seriously challenge him, it may have to happen in the next two days.
Wednesday’s stage sends riders up four significant Alpine mountains, including the serpentine Télégraphe and the race’s highest point, the Galibier, before a finish up the narrow Col du Granon, a climb last seen on the Tour in 1986, on a day when the American Greg LeMond took over the yellow jersey.
On Thursday, the Tour organizers somewhat sadistically will send the riders up the Galibier again, and then the Croix de Fer. Those ascents will be followed by the most recognizable mountain on the Tour, the picturesque Alpe d’Huez, which is a part of the race route for the first time since 2018. The endless switchbacks on that climb nearly always provide drama, whether a duel among leaders or a solo coronation for a dominant rider.
One possibility this week, as seen in some previous Tours, is that Pogacar will play it safe and eschew a major attack, and instead simply choose to stick close to his challengers and maintain his lead, perhaps grabbing a few seconds at the end of stages. If that happens, the race will remain in the balance for the climbs in the Pyrenees next week.
But this year, so far, Pogacar has shown a tendency not to hold back, but instead seize his opportunities to win stages and put his opponents into difficulty. That was what he attempted to do again Tuesday, when he burst from a group that included Vingegaard to dash for the line, looking back as he did to see how much of a gap he had opened, how many precious seconds he might have collected.
Those looking for a surprise might point to Pogacar losing two of his seven teammates to Covid positives, leaving his team, U.A.E. Team Emirates, a little thin.
But if Pogacar, still only 23, does indeed gain even more time Wednesday and Thursday, he could put a lock on the yellow jersey, and the race.