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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Pogacar cuts further into Vingegaard’s Tour de France lead

By Victor Mather

There were three climbs in the early part of Sunday’s Tour de France stage that would break any normal person on a three-speed. But everyone was really waiting for Jonas Vingegaard versus Tadej Pogacar on Le Puy de Dôme.

That short but unrelenting climb, returning to the Tour for the first time since 1988, was the capstone of Stage 9. And it was Pogacar who attacked on its steepest slope, gaining eight seconds on his rival. Vingegaard remained 17 seconds in front overall, but must be concerned about Pogacar’s fine climbing form with two weeks left in the race.

Vingegaard, a Danish cyclist, and Pogacar, who is from Slovenia, were the prerace favorites to win, and they had essentially split the first two tough stages of the race in midweek. On Wednesday, Vingegaard beat his rival by a minute. On Thursday, Pogacar struck back, pulling away to beat Vingegaard by half a minute. When the dust settled, Vingegaard led by 25 seconds overall, a margin he kept going into Sunday.

The road to Puy de Dôme goes up the mountain in a spiral, never giving riders a respite from the challenge of the slope. The final 2 miles do not dip below a punishing 12% gradient and hit an absurd 18% at the very end. A mano a mano duel there in 1964 between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor is often thought to be the Tour’s best ever. (Poulidor won that battle, but Anquetil won the Tour.)

“Right now, I’m good, but after the stage I don’t know,” Pogacar said before the stage. “The final climb will be really explosive,” he predicted. “The last 4K will be really brutal.” And so it proved.

The Puy de Dôme, an extinct volcano, was long thought to be too narrow to accommodate thousands of spectators, plus motorbikes, team cars, television cameras and the rest of the modern Tour infrastructure. Sunday’s return after 35 years was made possible in part by keeping out spectators for the final few miles.

Eight minutes ahead of the big two riders, Michael Woods, a 36-year-old Canadian, was winning the stage after chasing down American Matteo Jorgenson. “I can’t believe I did it,” he said of his first stage win. Noting the unusual absence of spectators toward the end, he said, “It was deafening until about 4K to go, then, all of a sudden, silence.” He added, “It’s an iconic climb, beautiful.”

But the battle for overall Tour victory was resuming farther down the mountain.

Pogacar attacked with about a mile of tough climbing to go. He got a small gap on Vingegaard, as the other members of their group melted away. Pogacar kept up the pressure, and the gap widened to five seconds. But Pogacar needed 25. In the end he gained eight seconds and now trails by 17 seconds overall. The margin to third-place Jai Hindley of Australia increased by more than a minute to 2 minutes 40 seconds.

“It’s not a victory, but it’s a small victory,” Pogacar said. “I was a bit scared. The guys were telling me, ‘It’s so hard, it’s so steep.’ But actually today we were flying uphill, so it didn’t feel so steep.”

Vingegaard said, “Today he was stronger in the end,” and added, “I just have to keep fighting to keep yellow.”

The next big stages come next weekend, a tripleheader of mountain races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And the final week of the Tour brings a time trial and two more mountain stages before the final day in Paris on July 23.

There should still be many rounds of the Vingegaard-Pogacar battle to come.

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