Roglic leads Tour de France after epic mountain trek

Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar, left, crosses the finish line ahead of third placed Switzerland's Marc Hirschi, center, and second placed Slovenia's Primoz Roglic, right, to win the ninth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 153 kilometers (95 miles), with start in Pau and finish in Laruns, Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020.(Benoit Tessier, Pool via AP)
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Primoz Roglic finally seized the race leader’s yellow jersey after another hectic day of Tour de France racing in the mountains as debutant Marc Hirschi of Switzerland delivered an impressive 90-kilometer solo effort across four Pyrenean climbs.

Roglic, the Slovenian favorite this year alongside defending champion Egan Bernal, displayed his strong climbing credentials in the final ascent Sunday to dethrone overnight leader Adam Yates.

Jumbo-Visma leader Roglic has been flawless so far and able to respond to every attack with ease over the first weekend in high mountains. It’s a performance that earned him the first yellow jersey of his career after nine days of racing.

“Everyone is dreaming about wearing it, I’m super happy,” said Spanish Vuelta champion Roglic, a former ski jumper. “But the mission is to try to win the race in Paris, we need to maintain our focus. It’s just the beginning.”

Hirschi, a former under-23 road race world champion, got away away from the peloton in the first major ascent of the 153-kilometer (95-mile) trek then resisted the favorites’ chase until he was caught with only 2 kilometers left. He launched a sprint to the finish line but was not fast enough as Tadej Pogacar prevailed to win Stage 9 ahead of fellow Slovenian Roglic. Hirschi finished third in the town of Laruns.

“It’s really crazy, after that hard day to win the stage,” said Pogacar, who put his hands on his helmet after winning his first Tour stage at just 21. “Actually I wanted to gain as much time as I could in the general classification, but in the last 100 meters I thought of the 10 seconds awarded to the winner. I focused on the sprint, I just went full gas.”

A Tour debutant, Pogacar is lagging 44 seconds behind Roglic in seventh place.

Ahead of Monday’s first rest day, Roglic leads Bernal by 21 seconds thanks to the bonus time he amassed at the top of the mountain and on the finish line. Frenchman Guillaume Martin is third, 28 seconds off the pace. Bernal finished the stage in the same time as Pogacar.

“I know that I have lost time to Roglic but I should be patient,” Bernal said. “He is an intelligent rider, I think that he has learned a lot from the last big tours that he did. The plan is just to wait until the right moment.”

Yates, who moved down to eighth overall, got dropped when the competition between the favorites heated up near the summit of the Col de Marie Blanque after Roglic’s teammates significantly increased the pace. The Mitchelton-Scott rider cracked when Pogacar attacked and conceded 54 seconds on the finish line.

“I gave everything I could to hang on. I think we can be proud of what we did,” Yates said. “I’ll freshen up now, have a rest day and then go after some stages.”

Riding behind Hirschi, Pogacar was the most aggressive on the Col de Marie Blanque, where he accelerated three times and forced his rivals to show their strength and cards. Bernal responded with ease and even tried a counter move that proved inefficient while Roglic followed without trouble.

Nairo Quintana, Martin, Romain Bardet, Rigoberto Uran and Martin struggled to keep up with the pace and lost 11 seconds in Laruns.

“It’s a fight for every second,” Roglic said.

Roglic and Pogacar have been irresistible in the Pyrenees and can both dream of a podium finish in Paris if they maintain that level of form in the Alps later in the race. At the summit of Marie Blanque, Roglic crested just ahead of Pogacar, who almost hit his back wheel as he looked behind. The two men then shook hands before starting their descent.

The 22-year-old Hirschi, another Tour rookie, came close to producing one of the most stunning feats in the race’s history. In the thick fog enveloping the mountain and under a slight drizzle, he crossed first at the summit of Col de la Hourcere with a lead of more than 90 seconds and went all out on the slippery roads in the technical and perilous downhill that followed.

Pedaling while crouched on top of his bike frame and taking aggressive lines through the turns, Hirschi increased his lead and tackled the ascent of the final climb, the Col de Marie Blanque, with a four-minute lead over the chasing group of main contenders.

As competition between the top riders came alive in the monster climb, Hirschi saw his lead vanish in the thin air. With a cross hanging from his neck on his wide-open jersey, he fought until the very end and salvaged a deserved podium finish.