an ascendancy

tour de france stage eight

He’s descending with quite a bit more caution than usual, making sure to avoid any risks that could jeopardize the position he’s spent this afternoon securing for himself.

Boyish features and all-white adornment still striking amid the dreary skies and rain-soaked landscape, he has liberated himself from the company of the few remaining competitors who might briefly have fancied themselves worthy of being his rivals.

Wholly unconcerned with matters of petty seconds, he has instead claimed minutes.

Soon he will trade out those white garments, and in doing so shed the trappings of innocent, exuberant youth in favor of a regal yellow he will guard as kings defend thrones. He will be an avatar of majesty to some, and tyranny to others. 

He is still far too young to have considered the impermanence of greatness and inevitability of eventual Ozymandian decline, and far too soft-spoken to insist that his foes look upon his works and despair.

And yet, having struck out today with a brutal blow, the violence of which matches his frenetic style on the bike, he has made plain his intentions. Tadej Pogačar is no longer content to be anyone’s boy prince.

It’s possible that in a vacuum, you could’ve expected something of a calmer beginning to today’s proceedings after yesterday’s near two hundred and fifty kilometers of madcap action. But with a start on a steep climb and teams incentivized to continue putting Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates under pressure, the attacks once again flew from the word go. 

For over seventy kilometers, groups went off the front and were reeled back in, including repeated alternating attempts from Pogačar and Wout van Aert to get one over on each other by making a break that the other’s depleted team might fail to chase.

It must have been something of a source of frustration to those with no other aim than to fight for a stage win, repeatedly creating gaps only to find themselves joined by GC men whose presence instantly marked the move to be hunted down. 

Eventually, after several fits and starts, a strong group of climbers went away and established the day’s break, but not before Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas were once again shelled out the back. Eventually joining one another in the gruppetto and presumably commiserating over the star-crossed nature of each of their Tours, the two would finish over thirty-five minutes adrift.

At some point, there was a meaningful concern that the race might need to be rerouted after a truck got stuck on the Cote de Mont Saxonnex. Looking back, that may have been just about the only thing that could’ve hampered Pogačar today. As it was, the truck was cleared and the race went ahead as scheduled.

For the second day running, UAE were forced to deplete their resources pulling an uncooperative peloton and keeping a strong breakaway under control. This was, in theory, supposed to be one of the only ways in which Pogačar could see his race undone. Down to only one domestique in Davide Formolo on the day’s penultimate climb, the first category Col de Romme, Pogačar would, as the thinking went, soon find himself isolated and vulnerable to repeated attacks. In retrospect, this notion feels laughable. 

Formolo, having made a remarkable recovery after being used up and discarded early in yesterday’s stage, put in a high-value shift. With equally impressive displays of climbing and pain-face, he dropped several elite climbers, yellow jersey wearer Mathieu van der Poel, and perhaps most crucially Van Aert, who appeared set to take over the Maillot Jaune today.

Now, as Formolo’s shift appears to be winding down, Pogačar strikes off on his own with over thirty kilometers remaining, launching a searing attack that instantly gaps everyone remaining besides Richard Carapaz. 

It’s an audacious statement of intent. Based on form, Pogačar appears perfectly capable of following attacks from anyone in the reduced group, and could delay the point at which he needs to go into the red by playing out this scenario a bit slower.

But Pogačar knows first-hand the dangers of sitting on the front and dragging opponents up mountains, having taken advantage of Jumbo-Visma’s largesse in last year’s Tour for numerous free rides, and eventually ridden away with everything. Now in his first try at defending a de facto lead in the mountains, he will leave nothing to chance and everything to his own legs. 

It’s always a little funny the way Pogačar’s terrifying strength is belied slightly by his undeniably awkward appearance on the bike. Whereas Roglič — the cyclist with whom he is most often compared — is endlessly smooth and economical, spinning away in a tiny gear when seated, Pogačar stomps out a quad-dominant pedal stroke, bobbing and weaving his head and shoulders all the way. 

Even on his time trial bike, he moves and sways so heavily that after the La Planche de Belles Filles time trial in last year's Tour, Tom Dumoulin wondered aloud how it was possible for a man who “rides his bike like a miner” to produce such a performance. When out of the saddle and on the attack, he shifts forward and practically stands straight up, bouncing side to side and almost shimmying his shoulders.

If it looks strange, it certainly does little if anything to detract from his effectiveness. Constantly applying pressure, he rides Carapaz, one of the world’s most explosive climbers when on form, off of his wheel and continues on without shifting out of the big ring. Soon after, Carapaz is re-absorbed into the main group after being off the front for the second day running.

Passing the cast-offs from the breakaway one by one, Pogačar continues to gain time on the main group in bundles. Leapfrogging Van Aert who remains behind the GC group, Pogačar is now in the virtual yellow jersey. 

Up front, Mike Woods is seeing his earlier attack steadily pulled back by Dylan Teuns. Woods has grown by leaps and bounds as a climber this year, even winning the queen stage of the Tour of Romandie atop Thyon 2000, but today he has quite evidently gone too early, and will not hold similarly happy memories of the Col de la Colombiere.

The two are briefly reunited before Teuns attacks with a kilometer remaining in the climb. Over the top of the Colombiere, Teuns has been concerned that Pogačar has been steadily eating into the gap to the front of the race since attacking on the previous mountain, but now the Bahrain-Victorious man receives some heartening news: Pogačar is a minute and fifteen seconds behind.

Or, rather, that’s the news he thinks he’s receiving, anyway. Due to noise and interference, Teuns is having trouble hearing his radio, and in reality, his gap is about a minute shorter. Over the top of the climb, Pogačar is within twelve seconds. Teuns, encouraged by the misinformation, goes all-out on the descent for the stage win, careening through each and every corner, while Pogačar conservatively soft-pedals. 

Soon, Woods and Ion Izagirre catch back up with the young Slovenian on the way down. They are only allowed to hang around because the climb on which he hunted them down mercifully ended, giving way to this extended descent finish.

Up ahead, Teuns is in the process of claiming today’s spoils, continuing the improbable reign of Bahrain-Victorious as the team of the moment with their second stage win in as many days. Unfancied and regarded as a clear second-tier outfit at the start of the season, they have spent the last few months exceeding (if not altogether defying) expectations several times over. An emotional Teuns will dedicate the victory to his late grandfather.

It’s a genuine moment that, for many, will hardly register given the magnitude of what is taking place less than a minute behind him.

Pogačar continues to pull, never sparing a look back at his companions or witholding a second’s effort in order to play games ahead of the sprint. When Izagirre and Woods each kick out of his slipstream and power across the finish line ahead of him to take second and third, he is entirely unfazed. 

He is coming home the better part of two minutes ahead of Wout van Aert, who is about three minutes ahead of Rigoberto Uran, the next-closest GC rider. This is something resembling total victory.

In the aftermath of such a performance, there is an inevitable rush to contextualize it and determine what exactly it means, both for the race and for cycling more broadly. Just like after the time trial, cycling’s most reactionary types have not hesitated to declare the Tour effectively over after today’s events. It feels disingenuous to act as though they aren’t closer to being right this time around, but the Tour ends on the Champs-Élysées, and no sooner.

There is also, almost necessarily, speculation on the merit and nature of the performance.

This publication will not be engaging with that speculation, for today at least. There is no less interesting conversation to insert oneself into than one in which each side approaches from a fixed, immutable position, and behaves as though that position is self-evident.

Instead, it seems worth acknowledging that today, we saw a performance the like of which is vanishingly rare across cycling’s history.

It is certainly not impossible or even unlikely that in the coming years, Pogačar’s dynamic excellence will give way to sterile dominance, and block out the sun during much of the racing calendar. It may be that he completes the transition from an endearing youngster to the sport’s most polarizing figure at heretofore unseen speed. It may be that he wins six Tours de France, then seven, and then eight.

For the time being, on all counts, we’re still not there yet.

For the time being, there’s still a Tour to be won, and if you want, to be enjoyed too. In any case, it doesn’t mean much to the boy king. His job is the same either way.