Tadej Pogacar on Sunday became the youngest winner of the Tour de France in the post-World War II era, rolling into Paris a day after he took the leader’s yellow jersey off the shoulders of his friend and rival Primoz Roglic in an epic time trial that rewrote the ending of a one-of-a-kind, pandemic-delayed edition of the world’s most famous cycling race.
Pogacar, who will turn 22 on Monday, also became the first rider from Slovenia to win the Tour, and the first to claim three of the event’s simultaneous competitions in the same year: the yellow jersey for the general classification, the polka-dot jersey as the race’s top climber and the white one awarded to the Tour’s best young rider.
“This is an incredible feeling, standing here in Paris on the top of the podium,” Pogacar told reporters. “It was an amazing three weeks, an incredible journey.”
Sam Bennett of Ireland won Sunday’s 21st stage in a sprint on the Champs-Élysées but, in keeping with tradition on the race’s final day, the cyclists mostly rode at a slower pace than the one they had maintained for three weeks, and the overall standings remained unchanged from Saturday’s penultimate stage.
For most of the day, all eyes were on the 21-year-old Pogacar, who on Saturday accomplished what many had thought impossible: He wiped out Roglic’s 57-second lead by beating his rival by almost two minutes in an individual time trial. In doing so, Pogacar opened an insurmountable lead of his own entering the final day.
The dramatic finish lit up a Tour that took place amid stringent coronavirus-related regulations — imposed by both Tour organizers and French health officials — that affected several aspects of the race, including how the teams would compete in it and how fans would watch it from the roadsides. This year’s Tour might not have been as spectacular as last year’s edition, when Egan Bernal of Colombia, then 22 years old, became its youngest champion since World War II. But the rivalry between Pogacar and Roglic, two friends from Slovenia, kept the race captivating as it became clear entering the final week that one of them would win.
Throughout this year’s 2,165-mile journey, many focused not so much on who might lift the trophy but on all of the things that could go wrong. The race had already been pushed out of its traditional summer window by the pandemic, and in recent weeks, France, one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, has had a surge of new infections. Even as the race wound its way across the country’s roads and up and down mountain passes, the local authorities have reimposed restrictions to contain new outbreaks.
Taking hundreds of cyclists and staff members on a tour around France in that context seemed a risky, and perhaps reckless, endeavor. But organizers pressed ahead.
Fans were scarcer during many stages, and their access to the start and finish areas each day was limited. Selfies and autographs were forbidden, and masks were common. On Sunday in Paris, hundreds of spectators lined up on the Champs-Élysées and around the Arc de Triomphe plaza to see the 146 remaining riders.
But throughout the race, the protocols put in place to keep the riders safe appeared to have worked, and with the teams remaining in a so-called bubble, the Tour proved that a sporting event of its scale could take place in the middle of a pandemic, even as other events, like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics or this summer’s European soccer championship, were postponed to 2021.
While the coronavirus was largely kept out of the bubble, it remained omnipresent: The Tour’s race director, Christian Prudhomme, tested positive and had to isolate himself for a week, and during many stages, fans cheered and ran alongside unmasked cyclists on narrow roads with their own masks down or without masks at all.
The Tour breathed an enormous sigh of relief on Tuesday, after all of the remaining cyclists emerged from a final round of virus testing with negative results. Of the 176 riders who started the Tour, 30 abandoned the race, but none of the departures was linked to the coronavirus.
Amid all of this worry, though, the Tour remained the Tour, with its passionate fans and scenic climbs, its unexpected twists and age-old traditions: France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, paid a visit to the cyclists on Wednesday; favorites (including Bernal, last year’s champion) abandoned the race either through injury or when it became clear they could not win; and French cyclists turned in another year of disappointing performances.
Many expected the fate of the Tour to be sealed on Wednesday on Stage 17 at the Col de la Loze, a harrowing mountain climb in the French Alps that had never appeared on the race’s route. Experts predicted that the 7,560-feet-high climb would finally decide the duel between Pogacar and Roglic, but after nearly five hours of racing and 25 miles of steep hills, the two Slovenes remained only seconds apart, always in each other’s sight even as Roglic finished the stage second, 15 seconds ahead of Pogacar.
By Saturday, Roglic’s lead was a comfortable 57 seconds, with only the individual time trial and Sunday’s ride into Paris remaining. As he rolled down the starting ramp, Pogacar’s chances were slim. Roglic went off right behind him.
Yet it was a modest climb at the end of that time trial, not the fearsome ascents in the Alps or the hills of the Massif Central, that will be remembered as the defining stretch of this year’s Tour. It was there that Pogacar completed his last-chance push for the lead, and where Roglic, having fallen almost two minutes behind his rival’s pace, crumbled on the final hill.
Pogacar won the stage, and took over the leader’s yellow jersey. Roglic finished a disappointing fifth. Afterward he collapsed to the pavement, knowing that his lead, and his title hopes, were gone.
Richie Porte, the 35-year-old Australian rider who finished the Tour in third place overall, 3 minutes 30 seconds behind the winner, said Roglic may have deserved to win the race, but that Pogacar’s ride on Saturday had been incredible.
After crossing the finish line on Sunday, Pogacar said he still couldn’t believe he had won. “Finally,” he said, noting that he had taken the time during Sunday’s ride to talk with his teammates after weeks of “going full gas.”
“It’s unbelievable, it’s really crazy,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top.”