LA PLANCHE DES BELLES FILLES, France (AP) — From the moment Tadej Pogačar heard the Tour de France would return to the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles this year, he wanted to win there again.
The Slovenian pulled if off on Friday in a nail-biting finish on the steep gravel slope of the mountain where he took the yellow jersey for the first time in 2020.
Victory in the first summit finish of this year’s Tour extended his lead after taking over the yellow jersey on Thursday.
“It was in my mind already a really, really long time, maybe since the route was already (revealed). It was a big, big goal to win today,” Pogačar said.
Pogačar caught, first, Lennard Kämna, who came agonizingly close to a breakaway win, and then Jonas Vingegaard with one last sprint at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles, a ski resort in the Vosges mountains of eastern France, near the German border. Pogačar had his family watching on and had extra motivation to win to mark the launch of his own cancer research foundation on Friday.
“It was really, really difficult, especially in the end, the last part. When Jonas attacked, he was so strong,” Pogačar said. “I had to push to the finish line.”
He started the 176-kilometer (109-mile) stage with a four-second lead over Neilson Powless and ended it with a 35-second advantage over Vingegaard. “A little bit is always good, but still, we know in cycling no gap is enough,” was the verdict of Pogačar, who praised Danish rider Vingegaard as “probably the best climber in the world” at the moment.
Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner, sat third, 1 minute, 10 seconds back, and his Ineos Grenadiers teammate Adam Yates was 8 seconds further behind.
American rider Powless, Aleksandr Vlasov and Daniel Martinez were among the general classification contenders who lost time.
Kämna, who rode to a stunning stage win in the Alps in 2020, was part of a seven-man breakaway heading into the mountains and clung on to the lead solo for almost all of the last three kilometers. He placed fourth behind Pogačar, Vingegaard and Vingegaard’s teammate Primož Roglič, who was racing in pain after dislocating his shoulder when he crashed into a bale of straw on Wednesday.
“The pain after my crash the day before yesterday is no excuse for me and I refuse to give up. I will keep fighting no matter what. The recovery will improve day by day,” he said.
The mountain hits a 24% gradient near the top and the last section is on gravel, making it one of the Tour’s most fearsome climbs. The mountain was the site of Pogačar’s breakout moment on the 2020 Tour, when he took the yellow jersey from fellow Slovenian Roglič on the penultimate stage in a time trial and went on to win the race. Pogačar won the Tour again in 2021.
It’s the second time Pogačar has taken back-to-back stages after victory in stages 17 and 18 in the Pyrenees last year.
Saturday’s eighth stage is a hilly 186-kilometer route from Dole in eastern France to Lausanne in Switzerland.
The race ends on July 24 in Paris.
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