By Julien Pretot
RONCHAMP, France (Reuters) -Tadej Pogacar strengthened his grip on the Tour de France as he extended his overall lead with victory on the seventh stage on Friday after being given a run for his money by his main rival, Jonas Vingegaard, in a thrilling finale.
The twice-defending champion pipped last year’s runner-up Vingegaard of Denmark to the line after a lung-destroying final effort at the end of the ascent to the Super Planche des Belles Filles, a 7-km climb at an average gradient of 8.7%.
“It was a really nice stage to win I’m super happy I could win it but it was so hard. At the end I was on the limit, really,” Slovenia’s Pogacar said after the 176.3-km ride from Tomblaine in eastern France.
“I was really bad in the end because Jonas is really strong, had to give everything and I wanted this stage at all cost.”
Emerging from a cloud of dust in the final kilometre raced on dirty roads, German Lennard Kaemna looked close to victory as he led the group of favourites by some 40 seconds.
That is when Pogacar decided to take the matter into his own hands as the gradient went over 20%, putting the hammer down in the first mountain-top finish of the race.
The 23-year-old’s acceleration left his rivals gasping for air but Vingegaard managed to take his wheel and countered after the duo caught Kaemna with less than 100 metres to go.
The Dane had a couple of bike lengths on Pogacar and seemed to be heading for victory when the UAE rider produced a final burst of speed to go around Vingegaard and take his second stage win in two days.
Primoz Roglic, the 2020 runner-up, took third place, 12 seconds behind, showing good form two days after dislocating his shoulder in a crash during the fifth stage.
Overall, Pogacar leads Vingegaard by 35 seconds with Britain’s Geraint Thomas sitting in third place, one minute and 10 seconds off the pace.
Thomas’s Ineos-Grenadiers team, with four riders in the top 10 overall, will be looking to blow the race open when it hits the Alps on Sunday.
“I was able to just ride my pace and relax and be ready for the last few minutes, which were hell,” said 2018 champion Thomas.
Russian Aleksandr Vlasov, one of the riders tipped to make it onto the podium in Paris, was dropped with 4km left and lost 1:39.
Kaemna took fourth place while Thomas was fifth, both crossing the line 14 seconds behind the yellow jersey holder.
France’s David Gaudu finished sixth, 19 seconds adrift, to move up to fifth overall, 1:31 off the pace and 13 seconds behind Briton Adam Yates, who is fourth.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge, Ken Ferris and Toby Davis)