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He sprints, he climbs, he tests – but still Van Aert is no match for Pogačar

16/03/2021

Tadej Pogačar has been a class apart this week. His stage finishes have been 29th, 4th, 8th, 1st, 2nd and 25th. He has pounced on every attack by the previous Tour de france winner, Egan Bernal, nearly caught Mathieu Van Der Poel in Sunday’s unforgettable denouement. He started the stage with a comfortable, 1’15” buffer over Wout Van Aert. His overall victory seemd assured. Indeed, bearing in mind his 4th place in the flat 13 km UAE Tour ITT, he seemed capable of doing just as well again today. 

That said, the gaps in GC were so extensive after 6 days of racing that no one looked particularly vulnerable in the top 12. The smallest gap between riders in the top ten was between Tim Wellens (6th at 4’30”) and João Almeida (7th at 4’42”). Almeida, 6th in the 13 km time trial at the UAE Tour on 22 February (and, to go back, 2nd, 6th and 4th in the three time trials at last year’s Giro d’Italia), looked eminently capable of bridging that gap. On the other hand, Wellens finished 4th in the Alès time trial at the Étoile de Bessèges on 7 February, so it looked like the only compelling contest at the top end of GC. 5th place overall, held by Matteo Fabbro, was 52 seconds away from Almeida, and probably out of reach. 

That left the battle for the stage win. Former Junior and Elite world individual pursuit champion Michael Hepburn (BEX) set the early best time of 11’33.47″. It stood for 45 minutes until Alberto Bettiol (EFN) came in with 11’24.81′. But by the time Bettiol finished, another former world individual pursuit champion, the current European time trial champion Stefan Küng, had already been through the 4.4 km split 4.86″ faster that him, in 4;38.15″. 

At the finish line, that became 12.36″ faster, in a new best time of 11’12.45″. His average speed of 54.107 kph was the 4th fastest average speed in history for the stage, although it paled by comparison with Ganna’s 2020 record of 56.636 kph.

Moments after Küng had crossed the line, Filippo Ganna – the reigning world champion inthe time trial and the individual pursuit, the last winner of the San Benedetto del Tronto time trial, and the course record holder – passed the intermediate timing point. Unbelievably, he was 4.67″ slower than Küng. It was the first off day Ganna has had in a time trial since the 2020 Tour de San Juan. Ganna crossed the finish line in a time 4.99″ slower than the European champion and slotted into 2nd place. It was a shock defeat for the World Champion.

An hour and ten minutes later, Tim Wellens (LTS) passed the first split 9 seconds slower than João Almeida (DQT). His 6th place in GC was in danger. At the finished line, he trailed his rival by 18″, and the two swapped 6th and 8th places. It was the only change in GC order. 

Wout Van Aert then powered through the intermediate timing point in 4’37.94″, a second faster than even Küng. Tadej Pogačar passed the same point 2’08” later. He was conceding time, but still had an ample margin of comfort. On the finish line, the superlative Van Aert finished 6′ faster than Küng, 11″ faster than Ganna, and 12″ faster than Pogačar.

After winning a time trial against nearly all the best specialists, he finished 2nd overall in a mountainous stage race. “It’s the first time I go for GC,” he said, “and I was only beaten by the Tour de France winner. I guess it’s a pretty good start, so I will do more of this in the future. Now I have the classics in mind. I like to focus on a lot of things, and so far it’s going OK.”

To the Belgian, the stage. To the Slovenian, the trident of the Tirreno Adriatico and his second stage race win of 2021. He has also finished 7th in Strade Bianche on 6th March.

Taumi Pogi reflected, “It’s a fantastic start to the season, but now I already need to take a rest.”

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