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Tamau Pogi’s masterclass in gap management

13/03/2021

The big mountain stage was much anticipated, and did not disappoint. It was a Tadej Pogačar masterclass, not just in attacking but in keeping your nerve and managing the smallest of gaps.

There were still 7.5 km to go on the 14.5 km climb to Prati di Tivo when Egan Bernal attacked. Tadej Pogačar responded immediately. Pushing a much bigger gear that the Colombian (note: so early in the season?), the Slovenian bridged across in an instant, with Fuglsang and Landa just behind. The move brought back Mattia Bais, who had been in the five-man breakaway that started at kilometre zero, although it was the next attacker, Geraint Thomas, who actually rode past him. Fello escapees Marco Canola and Emil Vinjebo had already been dropped, and Benjmain Thomas would be next, leaving only Mads Würtz Schmidt out front.

Bais, of course, was in the breakaway on stage one, before his younger brother Davide went marauding yesterday. The rest of the Bais family, if there is anyone not in the Tirreno peloton, must be glued to the TV this week. 

Despite knwoing Bernal was on his wheel, Pogačar nonchalantly rode everyone up to Thomas. Then Almeida attacked, chased by Thomas, Van Aert, Fuglsang, and the rest, who rode back up to his wheel.

Thomas made another acceleration with 6.8 km to go, and, this time, a gap opened. Van Aert moved to the front of the chasing group and pulled, ahead of Almeida, Fuglsang, Alaphilippe, Pogačar, the three Colombians Bernal, Quintana and Higuita, and the other riders who could still cope with the pace.

Geraint rode past Benjamin – one multiple track world champion called Thomas overtaking another –  and the Welshman moved to within 50 seconds of the valiant stage leader, Würtz Schmidt. Even so, Geraint’s lead over the chasers was never more than 10 seconds. 

Then with 5.6 to go for, Pogačar shot out of the peloton like a bullet. Quintana and Almeida tried to follow but were unable or unwilling to work together. In seconds, the Slovenian was snapping at Geraint Thomas’s heels. 

With Nairo and João 12 seconds behind, and Wout Van Aert leading the chasing group a few seconds further back, Pogačar led Thomas past Würtz Schmidt, then, with 5 km to go, went solo. 

Afterwards he would say, “When I attacked, I tried to get rid of everyone, to be alone and go my own tempo. I saw the gap was rising. It gave me a little more motivation for sure, but there wass still a long way to go. It was super hard…”

All the chasing was being done by Van Aert, who asked for no help and received no offers of any. With 4.5 km top go, Nibali dropped out of the group of chasers. With 4.3 km to go, Van Aert let Fuglsang, Almeida, Bernal, Quintana, past Geraint Thomas. 

But it was not over. With 4.2 km to go, Bernal darted away in search of Pogačar, who was still only 8 seconds further up the climb. Landa went off after him, with Adam Yates giving chase, and  Quintana in their wake. Meanwhile, the rainbow jersey dropped out of the back of the group. And Pogačar was still just 12 seconds ahead. 

At 3.4 km to go, Almeida, Quintana and Higuita were bearing down on Landa and Yates, with Van Aert leading Fuglsang just behind, Pogačar seemed still to be within reach. With 3.1 km to go, as Geraint Thomas lost contact with the Van Aert group, Simon Yates sprang away from Bernal and Landa, in his bid for Pogačar and victory.

With 2.9 km to go, Higuita burst away like a yellow blue and red fire cracker. Fuglsang followed, and the two of them bridged across to Quintana and Almeida. Van Aert closed them down at his own, relentless pace, then moved to the front, and continued his extrardinary time trial up the slope. 

With 1.8 km to go, Bernal quietly dropped away. He would finish the stage 11th, with Geraint Thomas just behind. 

At the flamme rouge, Yates was 6 seconds behind Pogačar, but he was still 6 seconds behind at the finish line. Higuita, with that razor-sharp acceleration, crossed the line third, 29 seconds after the new race leader, who paced himself perfectly to be able to respond to the threat from Yates.

“Every second is good,” Pogačar said after the stage, “but tomorrow is a super hard day, and there is a time trial on the last day, so I think it’s going to be really tight battle for the finish.”

Mature words from a rider who has the legs, lungs and courage to attack, and the brains to manage the smallest of gaps and ensure it brings him victory. Chapeau!

That said, the best ride today may well have been by Van Aert. It would have been easy to misjudge the pace and lose ten or twelve minutes. Instead, with tomorrow’s unbelievably hard final circuits, and the final time trial, he is stil in contention here. With the old Tom Dumoulin currently sidelined, Jumbo-Visma may have found the new one.

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