After three gruelling weeks of bike racing, spanning 3,500km, battling the elements and navigating all manner of terrain – including the brutal French mountains – the Tour de France peloton enjoyed a comparatively gentle cycle on Sunday.
The final stage of the world’s greatest road race is largely processional as the riders make their way into Paris and cruise around the streets and landmarks of the capital. The sprinters do provide one final jolt of excitement with a dash down the famous Champs-Élysées, but their moment in the spotlight is fleeting. Before the winner has barely had time to raise his arms in triumph – this year’s final stage went to Irishman Sam Bennett – the collective gaze of the millions watching around the world has switched to the man in the yellow jersey.
That man is Tadej Pogacar, the precociously talented Slovenian who snatched the lead from compatriot Primoz Roglic in the most extraordinary penultimate stage.
Trailing Roglic for the entire Tour, the closest Pogacar got to the world’s No 1 road cyclist was 40 seconds. That was until Stage 20’s mountain time trial. As Roglic crumbled, Pogacar soared, destroying his rivals, overturning the deficit and slipping on the yellow jersey the only time it truly mattered.
And so to the final ride down Paris’ most famous avenue. Protected by teammates who had worked tirelessly and selflessly to provide his platform for victory, Pogacar eased over the finish line and into the history books.
Pogacar, who turns 22 on Monday, is the youngest Tour de France champion in 116 years and the first Slovenian to win the race, achieved on his debut no less.
It marks the crowning achievement of a meteoric rise since turning professional at the start of 2019. His first year on the UCI World Tour comprised wins at the Tour of California and the Volta ao Algarve, but it was his third-place finish at the Vuelta a Espana – Spain’s equivalent of the Tour de France – that proved Pogacar could mix it with the elite.
"This is incredible, standing here in Paris on the top step of the podium," Pogacar said. "I never thought I would be here. It's been an amazing three-week adventure.
"I have to thank everyone who's been involved in the preparation for the race, everyone in my team and my family. Thank you to UAE Team Emirates for giving me the opportunity."
Indeed, as Pogacar ascended the podium to receive his acclaim in Paris, it not only cemented his status as the next big star in cycling but also continued UAE Team Emirates’ similarly rapid rise on the World Tour.
The team was only formed in 2017 after Emirati businessman Matar Suhail Al Yabhouni led a takeover of Italian outfit Lampre, whose previous deal with Chinese investors fell through. While Lampre were perennial also-rans, UAE Team Emirates had markedly loftier ambitions.
Not content with simply participating in the big races, UAE Team Emirates set about building a team and creating an environment that would allow them to challenge more established operations for major honours.
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As expected of a new team, the first two years produced moderate yet encouraging success: a few Grand Tour stage wins here, a one-day race win there. But as the roster of riders took shape and UAE Team Emirates expanded, the foundations were being built for a bright future.
Perhaps the one component missing was a truly elite-level cyclist capable of winning races like the Tour de France. Fabio Aru, the 2015 winner of the Vuelta, could have been that figure but the Italian has had terrible luck with injury since joining the team.
The solution was found in a young Slovenian with no World Tour experience. Signed as a prospect who had just one year on the second-tier UCI Continental circuit, Pogacar shocked even himself with how quickly he adapted to elite racing.
"I did not expect it – I don't think anybody expected it. I surprised myself almost every race," he told The National during a team visit to an Abu Dhabi school in October last year.
By the look of his reaction upon clinching the Tour de France title, Pogacar has surprised himself once again. After winning the greatest race in the world, nothing should surprise him anymore.