By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Tadej Pogacar pulled off one the biggest coups in Tour de France history and his boldness and talent have been widely acclaimed, yet it is too soon to tell if his title on Sunday will be the start of long-term domination.
The Slovenian, who celebrates his 22nd birthday on Monday, is the youngest Tour winner since Henri Cornet in 1904 and the first debutant to win the race since Laurent Fignon in 1983.
Despite early setbacks, Pogacar managed to turn the tables and tear apart his main rival Primoz Roglic’s pre-written script.
Recent Tour history, however, shows that pure talent is not always enough.
Pogacar lost key team mates Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo early in the Tour while his compatriot Roglic, whom he leapfrogged in a memorable time trial on Saturday, could rely on the support of Jumbo-Visma, arguably the most formidable outfit in the race.
The Team UAE Emirates rider, however, took his chances when he could, regaining 40 seconds on the Col de Peyresourde in the Pyrenees with an attack Roglic did not cover. The day before, Pogacar had lost 1:21 in crosswinds on a flat stage but he was not discouraged.
"If I have the legs, I attack," he said repeatedly, while Roglic rode conservatively, seemingly content with his advantage which had reached 57 seconds before the time trial.
Team Sky, who became Ineos and Ineos-Grenadiers, used their collective force to choke the opposition – setting a breathtaking pace to prevent attacks – and Jumbo-Visma applied the same tactics this year.
Australian Richie Porte, who finished third overall, said that plan might have served Pogacar well.
"In some respects, he was lucky that Jumbo-Visma set such a cracking pace on the climbs,” said Porte. "If you’re able to hold the wheel then you’ve got a bit of a free ride.”
Roglic, whose meltdown on Saturday left him in tears, might never recover from the disappointment of losing the Tour on the last day, but the 30-year-old will be looking for revenge.
“It’s not going to be like that next year. I think Pogacar is going to be a marked man,” said Porte.
The 23-year-old Egan Bernal was also widely tipped as a future Tour de France great but the Colombian appeared way off the pace before pulling out with back pains and he could now fall behind Giro/ d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz in the pecking order at Ineos-Grenadiers.
When Jan Ullrich won the 1997 title, he was also acclaimed as a potential great Tour de France rider, but the German never added to his only triumph.
Behind Pogacar, Belgian prodigy Remco Evenepoel, 20, is waiting for his Tour de France debut, possibly in a couple of years.
But the great Eddy Merckx, a five-times Tour de France champion, warned that Evenepoel had yet to prove himself.
“He talks a lot but he hasn’t shown anything yet. Let’s wait and see,” Merckx told French sports daily L’Equipe.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond)