Tadej Pogacar strengthens grip on yellow jersey as Ben O'Connor soars to stage win

Stage 9 of Tour de France sees UAE Team Emirates' defending champion extend overall lead but faces new challenger after O'Connor's stunning performance

UAE Team Emirates rider Tadej Pogacar enjoyed a successful first day in the yellow jersey after a late charge on Stage 9 saw the defending champion strengthen his position over many of his Tour de France rivals on Sunday.

Pogacar, 22, claimed the general classification lead on Saturday following a masterful ride on the Tour's first mountain stage and followed it up with another impressive performance to extend his overall lead by 13 seconds to 2mins 1sec.

On a day that started with Pogacar's biggest pre-race title rival, Primoz Roglic, withdrawing from the Tour due to injuries sustained earlier in the race, he stayed in control throughout the stage and responded to a late attack by Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, now his main rival for the general classification, in the final climb to the Alpine resort of Tignes to stay top of the rankings. His lead over Carapaz now stands at 5mins 33 secs.

Heading into the first rest day, the Slovenian's closest challenger is Ben O'Connor after the Australian AG2R-Citroen rider won the 144.9km mountain trek having surged clear of the breakaway. Italians Matteo Cattaneo and Sonny Colbrelli finished the stage in second and third, more than five minutes behind the winner.

Such was O'Connor's dominance on the stage, he has surged from 14th to second in the general classification. It was the Australian's first Tour de France stage win.

"O'Connor was super strong today," Pogacar said. "A great ride from him. I was a bit scared to lose the jersey, that's why I accelerated at the end - I like this jersey."

While Pogacar remains in command of his Tour de France destiny, it looks like he will have to contend with a new challenger given O'Connor's outstanding ride on Sunday.

On another rain-soaked day, O'Connor made his decisive move with 75km remaining when he pushed clear of the stage's 40-rider breakaway. As the climbs grew tougher and riders started to crack, the breakaway splintered on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend and leading to the final ascent.

O'Connor was joined on the long final climb to Tignes by EF Education-Nippo rider Sergio Higuita, but the Colombian was soon dropped. The Australian was then given a clear run at the stage victory which he wrapped up on the final descent.

"It was always the dream. Just to be here is the first dream," O'Connor, 25, said. "This is testament to everyone who’s put faith in me over the years, my fiance, my parents, my best mates back in Australia.

"I mean, it’s what you dream of. I’m just loving every single moment. I’m so happy, Citroen have had so much faith in me, and it’s clear how much happiness has brought the team, so it’s special.

"I actually wasn’t meant to be in the break," he added. "I was just waiting, I didn’t really know what to do, if I should play cool. I heard it was a great opportunity, to gain time on the GC, and I knew I could always win at the end.

"I was blowing pretty hard, but it was a mad stage, conditions were atrocious. I was concerned that Tadej was going to explode from behind and chase me down, but I knew I could win the stage. I had faith the whole time, and it was about making sure I didn’t panic. As soon as you think, ‘I’m going to win a stage on the Tour de France’, all sorts of things happen to your mind."

Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion, saw his title hopes ended on Stage 8 but the Welsh rider has shrugged off the disappointment to assist Ineos Grenadiers teammate Carapaz. It was Thomas who led the yellow jersey group to set up an attack for Carapaz, but ultimately the move backfired as Pogacar responded to surge clear of the group.

"I felt 10 times better today," Thomas said." Still stinging, don’t get me wrong. That was a hard start. I managed to just hang in there. I was more up for it as well, after such a poor performance yesterday. An extra coffee on the bus and a bit more attitude, I guess."

Updated: July 4th 2021, 5:08 PM
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