Pogacar wins final Tour mountain stage, cements overall lead

LUZ ARDIDEN, France (AP) — After Tadej Pogacar won the final mountain stage of the Tour de France on Thursday to cement his grip on the race, the young Slovenian had four more climbs to complete.

Unlike the two mammoth ascents he mastered earlier in the day, these ones were small: Pogacar stepped four times atop the podium in the Luz Ardiden ski resort as his rewards for winning the stage and retaining the leader’s yellow jersey, as well as for leading the standings as best climber and best young rider.

Just call it total dominance.

Only 24 hours after winning another climbing classic at the Col du Portet, the 22-year-old Pogacar became only the fourth rider in Tour history to win consecutive summit finishes at cycling’s biggest race.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s crazy,” Pogacar said. “It’s been a game for me since I started (my career) and I’m enjoying playing it.”

The defending champion has indeed been toying with his rivals this summer. He had waited until the penultimate stage to take control of the Tour last year but did it after only five stages this summer with a stunning display in the first time trial. He was untouchable in the Alps — where he seized the yellow jersey — and wrapped up the demolition work in the Pyrenees.

Barring an accident, the UAE Team Emirates rider should be crowned Tour champion for the second straight year when the race ends in Paris on Sunday.

Before Sunday’s processional ride leading to the Champs-Elysees, there is just one difficult stage remaining — a time trial through the Bordelais vineyards scheduled Saturday. Pogacar excels in the race against the clock and won the first time trial of this year’s Tour, beating the pure specialists.

Pogacar has a huge lead of five minutes, 45 seconds over Vingegaard in the general classification. Carapaz is in third place, 5:51 off the pace.

“Still three days, but it looks good,” Pogacar said.

The short trek in the Pyrenees featured a daunting combination of the Col du Tourmalet and the final sharp climb to the Luz-Ardiden, two classics of the Tour.

Pogacar’s main rivals did not take advantage of the brutal course and he was never under threat. Pogacar surged away from a reduced group of four riders in the last kilometer. After Enric Mas attacked, Pogacar countered the move and dropped Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz to claim a third stage win this year and win his second straight mountaintop finish.

The stage start was overshadowed by the news that the Bahrain Victorious team had been raided by French police as part of a doping investigation. The team confirmed that riders’ rooms were searched by officers at the hotel it stayed in on Thursday in the southwestern city of Pau.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the Marseille prosecutor in charge of the case said a preliminary investigation targeting members of the team was opened on July 3 “for acquisition, transport, possession, import of a substance or method prohibited for use by an athlete without medical justification.”

The team’s seven remaining riders were allowed to start the stage. A group of three competitors formed early as Christopher Juul-Jensen led over the first climb of the day, with world champion Julian Alaphilippe and Pierre-Luc Perichon chasing hard behind.

The French duo joined the breakaway before the 17-kilometer ascent of the iconic Tourmalet, but the fugitives did not collaborate well as Juul-Jensen and Matej Mohoric refused to take turns.

Juul-Jensen was the first to stop his efforts, with Sean Bennett and Pierre Rolland also waiting for the peloton, leaving Alaphilippe and Mohoric alone at the front at the foot of the mountain. They were joined by counter-attackers six kilometers from the summit.

Alaphilippe was dropped in the last three kilometers as Pierre Latour, David Gaudu and Ruben Guerreiro went away, with the peloton led by Carapaz’s teammates on their heels, just 40 seconds behind.

Under a bright sun, Gaudu went solo in the downhill but his one-man show did not last long. The Frenchman was swallowed up by the yellow jersey pack in the final climb, 9.5 kilometers from the finish.

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