Tadej Pogačar routed his rivals in the 27.2 km individual time trial from Changé to Laval on Wednesday to reaffirm his status as the odds-on favourite to win the Tour de France. The Slovenian rider followed up his momentous victory in the final time trial of the previous edition on La Planche des Belles Filles with another flash of brilliance and sent a clear message to his opponents, while Mathieu van der Poel went deep into the red in the finale to keep hold of his yellow jersey by just eight seconds over Pogačar. Swiss rider Stefan Küng, the European champion against his clock, produced a rock-solid performance but still finished 19 seconds behind the UAE Team Emirates leader, who blasted through the course at an average speed of over 50 km/h.
Dane Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo–Visma) came in third ahead of his leaders Wout van Aert in fourth and Primož Roglič in seventh, whereas other favourites such as Julian Alaphilippe, fourteenth at 1′11″, and Geraint Thomas, sixteenth at 1′18″, were left reeling after the first major test of this edition.
Bjerg sets the tone
The start of the time trial, held under ominous clouds, was a roll call for the riders injured in the previous stages. Tony Martin, a shadow of the cyclist who won the world championship against the clock four times, put in a decent time of 35′33″, while four-time Tour winner Chris Froome had to work hard to post a time of 36′20″, just ahead of Marc Hirschi at 36′28″. Young Dane Mikkel Bjerg, a three-time U23 time trial world champion, made the strongest impression among the early starters and moved into the hot seat with a time of 33′01″.
Rain on the parade
At this point, the sky opened up, boosting the prospects of the provisional leader and stopping his rivals from going all out. Brandon McNulty (UAE Team Emirates) crashed and was forced to jump onto a new bike with bloodied knees.
Swiss rider Stefan Bissegger, who claimed a somewhat shorter time trial in Paris–Nice last spring, came close to the Dane but, unable to take serious risks, came up 22 seconds short. Another Dane, Magnus Cort Nielsen (EF Education–Nippo), scored a near-miss, six seconds down, as the roads slowly dried up, buoying the hopes of the favourites.
Küng takes control
Bjerg had already occupied the "Kiss and Cry" area for over two hours when Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) finally bumped him from the hot seat by six seconds. However, the Italian's hopes were short-lived: one of the big favourites, Stefan Küng, put an impeccable performance to vault over Cattaneo by 36 seconds and take over the lead with a time of 32′19″. At an average speed of over 50 km/h, it seemed enough to grab the stage win unless one of the overall favourites still had an ace up his sleeve. Two other Danes, Jonas Vingegaard and Kasper Asgreen, came out with all guns blazing, in sharp contrast to Primož Roglič's metronomic effort.
Pogačar crushes the opposition
Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas, still suffering from the after-effects of a dislocated shoulder, was already conceding 25 seconds at the first intermediate time check (km 8.8). Vingegaard finished the stage 8 seconds down, with Asgreen at 18 seconds down and Roglič 25 seconds behind the leader, whose time seemed almost unassailable. Almost: Tadej Pogačar clocked one best intermediate time after another (leading by 10 seconds at km 8.8 and 17 at km 17) and blitzed the time trial to remind everyone that he is the mean to beat in this edition. The Slovenian is 22 seconds clear of Wout van Aert and 40 seconds ahead of Julian Alaphilippe on Wednesday evening, with other favourites such as Rigoberto Urán and Richard Carapaz already over a minute down.