LONGWY, France (AP) — Tadej Pogačar is back in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. And it’s earlier than perhaps even he expected.
On the way to his wins in the 2020 and 2021 Tours, Pogačar took the yellow jersey in the mountains, but on Thursday all he needed was the modest Côte des Religieuses hill in the border town of Longwy.
Asked about the prospect of being back in yellow, which wasn’t confirmed when he was speaking, Pogačar said in televised comments that for now he was focused on the stage win and “anything else is just a bonus.”
After an imposing sixth stage of nearly 220 kilometers (137 miles) through Belgium and northern France — the longest of this year’s Tour — Pogačar pulled away in the sprint finish on the crest of the Côte des Religieuses to take his first stage victory this year ahead of David Gaudu and Michael Matthews on Thursday.
Pogačar now leads the Tour by four seconds ahead of American rider Neilson Powless, thanks to the bonus seconds based on stage placings.
“Every time I win it’s even better,” Pogačar said. “We rode the last two climbs really hard, it was above our thresholds. It was super hard for the final climb and hectic and everything. I guess I had good legs to push in the end.”
Wout Van Aert was the leader heading into the stage and was the focus of attention with a breakaway, but was caught with 11 kilometers remaining. Van Aert dropped off on the hilly final section of the stage and eventually lost more than seven minutes.
It’s the earliest that Pogačar has worn yellow on the Tour after taking the lead on the 20th stage in 2020 and the eighth stage last year.
Friday sees the Tour’s first mountain stage and a return to a place where the UAE Team Emirates rider made his name. The 176-kilometer seventh stage runs from Tomblaine to a summit finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, where he surged to victory to take the yellow jersey from fellow Slovenian Primož Roglič in the penultimate stage in 2020.
Despite the imposing length of the stage, the pace was relentlessly fast from the start.
Van Aert, Quinn Simmons and Jakob Fuglsang broke away and had a four-minute gap to the peloton at one stage, but were gradually reeled back in. Fuglsang dropped back and the advantage was down to two minutes with 50 kilometers to go. Simmons couldn’t keep up with Van Aert, who kept his lead stable at just over a minute with 25 kilometers remaining, but the Belgian didn’t have enough energy left to stay in front on the repeated climbs.
Pogačar said he had thought Van Aert could take the stage win on his own and credited his team’s “incredibly good job” getting him into position to fight for the stage win on the uphill finish of the Côte des Religieuses.
Van Aert had led since the second stage Saturday, with a series of impressive rides and a stage win along the way. The Belgian will now swap his yellow jersey for green as leader of the sprint classification.
“For sure the yellow jersey is nicer than the green one but I’ve enjoyed the yellow and I’ll enjoy the green as well,” he said. “At the end of the day, we were only three at the front, so I was well aware that it would be a mission to stay up there till the end. But I’ve wanted to honor the Maillot Jaune and share the moment with the crowd.”
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports