By Julien Pretot
SERRE CHEVALIER, France (Reuters) -Jonas Vingegaard threw everything at Tadej Pogacar to win an epic 11th stage of the Tour de France and replace the defending champion as the overall leader after a gruelling Alpine trek on Wednesday.
Last year’s runner-up Vingegaard attacked 4.9km from the finish to drop Pogacar, who had been attacked relentlessly by the Dane’s Jumbo-Visma team all day long and cracked after looking unbreakable in the first block of racing.
Pogacar held off his rivals in the Col du Telegraphe, where the offensive began 90 kilometres from the line, and the lung-busting Col du Galibier, even winking at the cameras before the final ascent, a dreaded 11.3-km climb at 9.2% to the Col du Granon, which culminates at 2,412 metres.
But Vingegaard’s brutal acceleration wiped the smile off the Slovenian’s face and Pogacar suddenly opened his jersey to get some air before seeing Geraint Thomas, David Gaudu and Adam Yates ride past him in the finale of a memorable 151.7 kilometre ride from Albertville.
Vingegaard reaped the rewards of his earlier attacks and those of team mate Primoz Roglic, who sacrificed his own chances in a risk-it-all strategy by the Jumbo Visma outfit in arguably the best Tour stage this century.
After his attack, Vingegaard never looked back, overtaking Frenchman Warren Barguil, the last survivor of the day’s breakaway, and Colombian Nairo Quintana, who had gone solo earlier from the group of favourites.
Quintana took second place, 59 seconds behind, with France’s Romain Bardet finishing third, one minute and 10 seconds off the pace.
“The team were fantastic, especially Primoz. He’s one of the leaders and he did everything. He showed how generous he is. He’s such a great rider. Winning a tour stage and wearing the yellow jersey is what I’ve always dreamed off,” said Vingegaard.
“Tadej is probably the best rider in the world. Taking the yellow jersey from him is incredible. He will do everything he can to reclaim it and I’ll do everything to keep it.
“In the last three kilometres I was on the limit, I just wanted it to end. It was brutal, brutal.”
Pogacar vowed to fight on ahead of another brutal day in the Alps with the 12th stage taking a worn-out peloton from Briancon to the iconic Alpe d’Huez, going through the Col du Galibier at 2,642 metres before an endless ascent to the Col de la Croix de Fer.
“I first felt good in the Galibier. I came under attack and they harassed me,” the 23-year-old Pogacar, whose team has been weakened after two UAE Emirates riders pulled out of the race with COVID-19, said.
“The whole Jumbo team were super strong and they were just stronger. Suddenly in the Granon I didn’t feel good. It was not my day but I’ll continue to fight,” said Pogacar.
“I’m going to try to regain some time, for you guys it’s going to be nice to watch. Today was a bad day but starting tomorrow I’ll be on the attack again.”
Pogacar, who started the day 39 seconds ahead of Vingegaard in the overall rankings, crossed the line in seventh place, 2:51 behind the winner, his face a mask of exhaustion.
Overall, Vingegaard leads Bardet by 2:16 and third-placed Pogacar by 2:22.
The Ineos-Grenadiers team limited the damage, with Thomas taking fourth place and Yates finishing sixth on the day.
Thomas, the 2018 champion, is fourth overall, four seconds behind Pogacar, and Yates lies in sixth, 40 seconds behind his team mate.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis)