'The race will explode': Tadej Pogačar and his team promise drama on final Tour de France Pyrenean showdown

The Slovenian has to overturn a 2-18 deficit to the Dane

Tour de France
(Image credit: Getty)

This is it.

It's not quite last chance saloon for Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) because there's a 40.7km time trial to come on Saturday, but if the defending champion wants to retain his Tour de France title he needs to crack Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) on Thursday's final mountain showdown.

Ever since Vingegaard spectacularly took yellow off Pogačar on the Col du Granon on stage 11, the quiet Dane hasn't flinched, nullifying all of his rival's many digs and attacks, including limiting his losses on stage 17's savagely steep finale to just four lost bonus seconds.

Stage 18 takes the riders across three peaks in the Pyrenees, beginning with the HC ascent of the Col d'Aubisque, continuing with the climb up to the Col de Spandelles that is making its debut, and finishing at Hautacam.

Alongside stage 11, some are nominate it as the race's Queen stage. Vingegaard, on paper, should be relaxed: he has an extra two teammates, he hasn't looked like cracking so far, and the finishing gradients aren't as evil as the Peyragudes which, the narrative suggests, works in the Dane's favour.

But Pogačar's team remain bullish. They've been talking ever since he ceded yellow about racing aggressively, and they're promising fireworks one more time.

"Everything is possible," Mikkel Bjerg stated. "Tadej, he had one bad day and lost the yellow jersey, so we need to put the pressure on and see if Jonas has a bad day.

"It's one of the hardest stages in this year's Tour. Tadej has good legs, we all feel confident and good that we can try to do something."

Their chances were seemingly diminished before the start of stage 17 when Rafał Majka, one of the standout riders of this year's Tour, was forced to pull out with a muscle strain sustained when his chain snapped the stage earlier.

He still made it to Peyragudes though as a spectactor, and he smiled like a man who knew what was around the corner. "The Tour is not finished," he made clear. "There is one more hard day, and I think it's harder.

"Today [stage 17 - ed] all the GC guys were dropped, [the parcours was] going up, going down al day. Tomorrow's an even harder stage and I think the race will explode."

His rival, Jumbo-Visma's Sepp Kuss, shared the assessment, the American preparing himself for one more huge battle as the world watches on. 

"Pogačar came super-close [on stage 17] and tomorrow is a different animal. [It will be] maybe similar, and if it takes a while for the break to go, perhaps until the first climb, it will be pretty crazy but less explosive than today with the longer climbs."

Kuss referenced the apparent favourable day for his own teammate, but was also aware of fatigue. "I think it [stage 17] was the day that suited him [Vingegaard] less compared to a day like tomorrow [today]. But in the third week, you can do damage on any climb."

Jumbo's DS Grischa Niermann expected intensity from UAE, too. "You could see that even though he only had three teammates, with two they could control the race. They will try something like this again."

The anticipation of the Tour de France generally generates more excitement than the action itself, and when - and where - the attacks will come from is a mystery.

UAE, despite their confidence, are also bruised from having to reassess their stage 17 tactics out on the road. They appreciate that perhaps there is nothing that will prove fatal to Vingegaard.

"Our goal [on stage 17] was to have Tadej with great legs and to put time on Jonas, but Jonas was great," said the team's DS Andrej Hauptman. "We had to change tactics on the last climb to focus on winning the stage.

"Pre-stage [the tactic] was to try on the penultimate climb, and Tadej tried on the top, but Jonas responded so we decided that maybe we just go on the last climb. But when we seen that Jonas was OK, we just focused on the stage victory."

Both teams know that Pogačar requires more than just a stage victory on stage 18; he needs to chip at least a minute off Vingegaard's 2-18 advantage.

Settle in. This is it.

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