SAINT-LARY SOULAN, FRANCE (REUTERS) - Tadej Pogacar controlled his rivals and extended his overall lead in the Tour de France as the final podium took shape in a gruelling 17th stage won by the defending champion on Wednesday (July 14).
The Slovenian outsprinted Denmark's Jonas Vingegaard and Ecuador's Richard Carapaz at the top of the lung-busting Col du Portet (16km at 8.7 per cent) for his first mountain-stage win in this year's Tour after being the first attacker in the final climb.
He now leads Vingegaard by five minutes, 39 seconds with Carapaz in third place, a further four seconds back while Colombian Rigoberto Uran slipped down to fourth, 7:17 off the pace, after cracking in the mist of the Col du Portet.
Pogacar burst away 8.4km from the top of the Pyrenean pass and only Vingegaard, Carapaz and Uran could follow at first. A second acceleration was fatal to Uran, who will need a spectacular recovery in Thursday's 18th stage to Luz Ardiden, the last mountain effort of the Tour.
Barring a major meltdown on Thursday, Pogacar looks set to retain his title and while he was not as dominant as in the Alps, the 22-year-old never seemed bothered in what was regarded as the toughest stage.
"Last week, we did a lot of work, the team was always in front to control the race. Today, with a small breakaway, we saw an opportunity to go for the stage win," said UAE Team rider Pogacar, who is also narrowing the gap to Dutchman Wout Poels in the mountains classification.
"I'm really happy to win on the hardest climb of the Tour. My team mates gave everything and I owed it to them. To win with the yellow jersey on my shoulders is something I cannot describe.
"Tomorrow if we can control like we did today we can try again but we will see."
Ineos Grenadiers leader Carapaz was on the wheels of Pogacar and Vingegaard in the steep ascent to the finish at 2,215 metres and despite appearing to be in pain, the 2019 Giro d'Italia champion attacked 1.4km from the top.
Pogacar, who had seemed annoyed by Carapaz's attitude, followed while Vingegaard was dropped, only for the Dane to pace himself back with the line in sight.
Vingegaard believes Carapaz was bluffing.
"Even when we were taking it easy he was looking like he was suffering, so I knew he was going to attack," the 24-year-old said.
Pogacar then sped away and could not be followed, wrapping up a solid victory before falling flat on his back in exhaustion.
In a sign that his rivals have capitulated, Vingegaard, who took over as Jumbo-Visma team leader after last year's runner-up Primoz Roglic pulled out following a crash, said: "I'm super happy about how it went today, especially since I took some time on Uran."
On Bastille Day, France's David Gaudu claimed an honourable fourth place, 1:19 off the pace.