UAE Team Emirates rider Tadej Pogacar moved one step closer to retaining his Tour de France title by winning the final mountain stage of the race on Thursday.
The Slovenia rider claimed another stunning victory in the 18th stage, a 129.7-km mountain ride from Pau to Luz Ardiden. His acceleration 500 metres from the line, at top of Luz Ardiden, was too good for his rivals as Denmark's Jonas Vingegaard and Ecuador's Richard Carapaz finished two seconds behind in second and third, respectively.
Overall, Pogacar now has a decisive advantage of five minutes 45 seconds over Vingegaard with Carapaz in third overall, a further six seconds behind.
It was Pogacar who made the first big move with a little over three kilometres to go, and it was the defending champion again who exploded inside the last kilometre after an attack from Enric Mas came to nothing.
“It's unbelievable,” Pogacar said. “After yesterday, I felt really good and I'm really happy with the win. It's crazy.
“There's still three days to go so you never know but it looks good.
“It was super hard. Already on the Tourmalet the pace was such that you just sit in the wheel and forget about everything and then on the last climb that was the maximum.
“Why should I be worried? For the time trial? We will see. It is a discipline where I always want to do my best. Sometimes you can have a really bad day in the time trial but it will be a new experience for me and I can't wait.
“You can lose six minutes in a time trial, it's happened before, but I'm pretty confident.”
The short trek in the Pyrenees featured a daunting combination of the Col du Tourmalet and the final sharp climb to the Luz-Ardiden ski resort.
Pogacar’s main rivals did not take advantage of the course. The defending champion surged away from a reduced group of four riders in the last kilometre. After Enric Mas attacked, Pogacar countered the move and dropped Jonas Vingegaard and Richard Carapaz to claim a third stage win this year.
Barring an unfortunate turn of events, the 22-year-old UAE Team Emirates rider should be crowned Tour champion for the second straight year when the race ends in Paris on Sunday.
Before Sunday’s processional ride leading to the Champs-Elysees, there is just one tough stage remaining — a time trial through the Bordelais vineyards scheduled Saturday. Pogacar excels in the race against the clock and won the first time trial of this year’s Tour, beating the pure specialists.
However, Pogacar's latest heroics was not the only stunning bit of news on the day. Bahrain Victorious team was raided by French police on the eve of Thursday’s stage as part of a doping investigation, according to judicial and police officials.
The team revealed that riders’ rooms were searched by officers at the hotel it stayed in the southwestern city of Pau.
In a statement to Associated Press, the Marseille prosecutor in charge of the case said a preliminary investigation targeting members of the team was opened on July 3 “for acquisition, transport, possession, import of a substance or method prohibited for use by an athlete without medical justification.”
About 25 officers from a special public health unit (OCLAESP) in charge of the case were involved in the search, according to police.
In a statement, the team's technical director Vladimir Miholjevic said: “Following stage 17, we were greeted by several French police officers. We were not given a warrant to read through, but the team complied with all the officers' requests.
“We are committed to the highest level of professionalism and adherence to all regulatory requirements and will always be co-operating in a professional manner. The process had impacted our riders; recovery and meal planning and as a professional team, the well-being of our team is a key priority.”