SAINT-EMILION – Tadej Pogacar all but became champion of the 2021 Tour de France on Saturday as the UAE rider protected his large overall lead in the stage 20 time-trial, ahead of the traditionally ceremonial final run to Paris.
Wout van Aert won the time trial, but defending champion Pogacar's solid ride means he need only cross the Champs-Elysees finish line with the peloton in Sunday's 21st, and final, stage to retain the fabled yellow jersey as winner of the world's greatest bike race.
Pogacar won three stages on his way to this dominant triumph in a manner reminiscent of former champions Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, strong in both the time-trials and the mountains.
He will also win the awards for best rider under-25 and the king of the mountains polka-dot jersey, a triple he also achieved on his debut last year.
"I can’t say which one is more beautiful. Last year everything was decided on the last individual time trial and the emotions were by far stronger. This time, I took the yellow jersey earlier. It has been totally different," said the man who will ride into Paris in yellow.
The Monaco resident, who earns five million euros (5.9 million dollars) a year, appeared overcome as he climbed on to the podium for his three jerseys, with Briton Mark Cavendish also wearing a huge grin as he picked up his green sprint jersey.
"I'm so happy its coming to an end," said Pogacar, admitting he was wiped out.
"What a demanding three weeks it has been," the 22-year-old said.
"I wasn't so motivated last night, and had to get myself going," said Pogacar, who ended the day 5min 20sec ahead of the second place rider in the overall classification.
"It was very hot and I was suffering a bit. But I'm super happy. It still was a super performance," said Pogacar.
The top three in the standings remained the same after the 30km run on a sizzling holiday Saturday as rowdy fans packed the roadsides all the way to the pretty Saint-Emilion vineyards.
Jumbo's Jonas Vingegaard goes into the final day run in second, while Ineos' Richard Carapaz is in third.
"I'd have told anyone they were nuts," Vingegaard said with a sparkle in his eye as he shovelled at a large bowl of pasta.
"Tadej was so strong in the rainy stages, he won it there in the rain," he said.
'He's not unbeatable'
A second place for Dutch team Jumbo is a triumph of sorts after their leader Primoz Roglic fell heavily early in the race.
Van Aert's victory on Saturday also gave them three stages, even though only four of the eight-rider team have made it through to the final stage after a series of falls.
"I'm very proud of our performance, these three wins and a second place in the general is great," said van Aert, who also won stage 11 which climbed Mont Ventoux twice while American Sepp Kuss took stage 15 in the Pyrenees.
"But if we want to win the Tour de France we need to stay on our bikes and finish the Tour with a full team.
"Tadej deserves his win, but I don't believe he is unbeatable," said Van Aert.
Van Aert also sent out a warning to Cavendish who is targeting an all time record of 35 wins on the Champs-Elysees sprint Sunday.
"I'll be challenging for sure. I won't miss out. The Camps-Elysees sprint is a huge thing in the career of any rider," said Van Aert.
A third place finish for British outfit Ineos, with no stage wins, bears a whiff of the end of their era after the 2020 failure was blamed on Egan Bernal's bad back.
The British outfit went into this race with four co-leaders hoping to win an eighth title in ten years, but suffered dreadful luck as three suffered bad falls, leaving only Carapaz to soldier on, although they did win the Giro d'Italia in May with Bernal.