Jonas Vingegaard took another giant step closer to securing the Tour de France title by winning Stage 18 following a superb solo finish on Thursday.
The Jumbo-Visma rider pulled away from defending champion Tadej Pocagar more than three kilometres from the finishing line at the summit of Hautacam to win by a minute and four seconds.
That result extended Vingegaard’s lead over the Slovenian to 3 minutes 26 seconds with three stages to go and, barring disaster or a bad fall, should see him ride up the Champs Elysees and become champion for the first time on Sunday.
Ineos-Grenadiers rider Geraint Thomas, who had attempted a solo run earlier in the stage, is eight minutes behind Vingegaard in third, but holds a comfortable 3:05 lead over fourth-placed David Gaudu.
“It's incredible,” Vingegaard said. “This morning I said to my girlfriend and daughter I wanted to win for them and I did.
“I'm really happy and proud I won for them. This one is really for my two girls at home.
“I was just happy it finally ended. It was incredibly hard. I'm also really happy I won the stage. Now there's still two more days to come before we are in Paris so we need to keep focus and we'll take it day by day again.”
Pogacar threw everything at Vingegaard in the penultimate climb to the Col de Spandelles, also throwing caution to the wind in the descent on a gruelling 143.2km trek from Lourdes.
Vingegaard came close to hitting the deck at one point, losing his balance on a bend and just managing to stay on the bike.
A few turns farther down the road, it was Pogacar who did skid off into the gravel on a left-hand turn, sustaining leg and hand injuries in the process. Vingegaard then showed impressive sportsmanship by waiting and shaking hands with the UAE Team Emirates rider.
“I think he missed the corner and then he went down into the gravel and tried to steer it out and the bike disappeared under him. Then I waited for him,” Vingegaard explained of the incident that occurred with more than 27km still to go. “We like each other, we get on and we respect each other.”
The pair have been shadowing each other for the entire race, with Pogacar winning three stages and taking the overall leader's yellow jersey by stage seven, before Vingegaard took it off him in the baking heatwave in the Alps.
Since then, Pogacar has relentlessly attacked the Dane in a stubborn effort to close the gap.
The loss of four of his UAE teammates to positive Covid-19 tests and injuries however hurt those chances.
On Thursday, Vingegaard's Jumbo-Visma teammate Wout van Aert – who finished third and is assured of the green points jersey – acted as a sherpa for his team leader on the final climb, and it was at that moment that Pogacar finally cracked.
“Today I have to thank all my teammates,” added Vingegaard. “They were incredible. You see Van Aert dropping Pogacar at the end. Sepp Kuss was incredible, Tiesj [Benoot], Christophe [Laporte] and Nathan [Van Hooydonck], they were all incredible today. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
As for Pogacar, he admitted after the stage that Jumbo-Visma had run a “perfect” race. “They have been really strong every day. Today the best man won. Jonas was stronger than me,” he said.
“I gave it all on the second-to-last climb, but I feel I still had something left for an attack on the final climb. Unfortunately, I crashed, and the crash took its toll from me.
“I have nothing but respect to Jonas. I think we respect each other a lot. When he decided to wait for me after my crash, he was in a good position to do it as he had teammates all over the road. It's me who wanted to go fast on the descent but I pushed it too far and crashed.”
Stage 19 runs through the isolated Tarn region and will probably end in a bunch sprint. Saturday's stage, however, is a brutal 41km individual time trial, leaving a glimmer of hope for Pogacar, who won the 2020 Tour with a last-gasp turnaround.
Stage 18 results
1. Jonas Vingegaard (Den) Jumbo-Visma 3 hours 59 min 50 sec
2. Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates + 01:04
3. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma + 02:10
4. Geraint Thomas (GB) Ineos Grenadiers + 02:54
5. David Gaudu (Fra) Groupama-FDJ + 02:58
1. Jonas Vingegaard (Den) Jumbo-Visma 71 hrs 53 min 34 sec
2. Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates +03:26
3. Geraint Thomas (GB) Ineos Grenadiers +08:00
4. David Gaudu (Fra) Groupama-FDJ +11:05
5. Nairo Quintana (Col) Arkea-Samsic +13:35