Slovenians took the laurels on the Tour de France on Sunday as rookie Tadej Pogacar won a Pyrenean mountain slog and his compatriot Primoz Roglic grabbed the overall lead.
Overnight yellow leader Adam Yates of Britain made a valiant effort to keep hold of the yellow jersey but fell gradually away on the final climb as the gradient hit 12 percent.
Pre-Tour contender Roglic has been the form man this season and after Sunday’s second place finish leads defending champion Ineos leader Egan Bernal by 21 seconds.
“Everybody dreams of wearing the yellow jersey one day in his life so first off I’m just happy how things are,” said Vuelta a Espana champion Roglic.
“It’s a fight for every second now and lots off things will happen to each of us on the road to Paris,” he said.
When asked if he worried that Bernal was beathing down his neck after Jumbo-Visma put the hammer down for nine days, he shrugged.
“No-one could go as hard as Egan did there on the last climb,” he said.
“We can enjoy a well deserved rest day now,” he said.
We can achieve great things
Pogacar said he remembered little of the frantic sprint that gave him a first Tour stage win as he pipped Roglic and Swiss rider Marc Hirschi, who had set the pace for much of the day, on the line.
“I wanted to gain as much time as possible,” said Pogacar, who twice lost time earlier in the week, but is now within 41 seconds of the lead.
“Ten seconds bonus for the stage win in the sprint is great but I don’t know what happened in it,” he said.
The 21-year-old Pogacar had a message of consolation for his 30-year-old countryman Roglic.
“He’s won before and he’ll win again. He and I can achieve great things for Slovenia,” Pogacar said.
French pair Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet are third and fourth overall with Colombian duo Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran within touching distance.
The 153km ninth stage set off from Pau in the south-west, and there were many spectators in berets along the route, and took in five climbs including two category 1 mountains.
The two Slovenians narrowly avoided disaster as they crossed the final summit, Col de Marie Blanque, together.
Pogacar looked round to see where Bernal was, swerved and clipped Roglic. Both did well to stay in the saddle.
“I was careless, I thought I’d gone past everyone,” he explained.
“We all worked together then to put time into the others behind us.”
“This is a really amazing experience,” said Pogacar, who won three stages on the Vuelta in 2019.
‘Difficult stages ahead’
Bernal has had to race the first week without his key climb partner Pavel Sivakov who hurt both elbows on the opening stage but the Colombian remained confident he can defend his title despite losing time on Sunday.
“It’s not just about the time gained or the time lost,” he said. “At this point in the race the feeling on the bike is important. And today I felt better than the day before”.
Bernal was only dropped by the two Slovenians at the end of the ascent of the Col de Marie-Blanque.
“I enjoyed the last climbs a lot”, the Colombian. “In reality, you can’t make much difference on an ascent like this. I know I lost time again against Roglic and Pogacar but I have to be patient. There are still two weeks to go and there are some difficult stages ahead of us.”
The longer climbs awaiting the Tour in the latter stages should suit the slightly built 23-year-old, who last year only took the yellow jersey on the 19th of the 21 stages.
Monday is the first rest day but a nervous wait for results of COVID-19 swab tests awaits the riders with a ban on teams with two positive cases.