As the Tour de France hits the mountains on Friday, the presumptive general classification favorite is already in the yellow jersey. Tadej Pogacar, the best stage racer the sport has seen in decades and maybe ever, seized the jersey on Thursday with a brutal display of dominance, flying up the final climb of the day and easily gapping Michael Matthews to win Stage 6. For some perspective, Matthews is a punchy sprinter built to win reduced bunch sprints like this, and Pogacar smoked him and the entire field to win in style. The odds are Pogacar will stay in yellow for another two weeks.
What a pity, then, that Neilson Powless missed out on Tour de France glory, two stages in a row, thanks to the superhuman efforts of the two best riders in the Tour. The 25-year-old American has been one of the best surprises of a fun Tour, and he will start Stage 7 in second place overall. That’s a tremendous position for the much-hyped young American rider to be in ahead of the selective portion of the race, though he came so close to achieving his country’s first yellow jersey since 2006 that it has to feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Powless, the first Native American rider to race the Tour de France, had never raced on the cobblestones of Northern France as a professional before Stage 5 this year. The infamous terrain can crack even the most experienced riders without warning, so when Powless said before the stage that he wanted a top-10 finish, Robbie Hunter said on the NBC broadcast that the goal was straightforwardly unrealistic; Powless almost won. He made the day’s breakaway, a strong group that also included his teammate Magnus Cort Nielsen and a Dutch guy named Taco. Despite the efforts of the peloton, the break managed to stay away until the finish line. While Jumbo-Visma riders flew around (in both good and mostly bad ways) and poor Daniel Oss crashed out after a spectator went Allez Omi-Opi mode, Powless and his break-mates gobbled up the cobbles. Nobody crashed, everyone worked hard for each other, and even though the main pack once came within 30 seconds, no team could be authoritative enough to reel the determined break back in. Powless jumped first, ahead of the sprint, and he was quickly caught and spat out by the killers in the break, though a fourth-place finish was a tremendous reward for a strong ride.
Powless was the highest-placed GC rider in the break, and the yellow jersey would be his if he beat the superhuman Wout van Aert by more than 1:13. As luck would have it, van Aert crashed before the cobbles, spent his day putting out fires, and then turned his body to dust trying to drag Jonas Vingegaard (who was riding a bike that was too big for him after a botched bike change) up to the Pogacar group. That much effort would have broken most riders, but van Aert is an all-terrain monster, so he kept the jersey by 13 seconds.
Speaking of Pogacar, he finished a strong seventh ahead of all his GC rivals and was helped greatly by Powless’s teammate Alberto Bettiol. The Italian rider inexplicably took some hard turns at the front of the peloton with two teammates in the break, helping Pogacar open up a gap that van Aert somehow managed to keep at just 13 seconds. Bettiol later apologized and said he was merely trying to split the peloton, which doesn’t really make sense. EF team manager Jonathan Vaughters said before the sixth stage that the team held a “lengthy debrief following the stage where Bettiol cleared the air with his teammates” and he later said that Bettiol was just excited to ride hard because he’d been injured since winning the Tour of Flanders in 2019. OK, but that doesn’t explain what was going on here:
Bettiol’s over-help turned out to be a curiosity on Stage 5, though it proved consequential on Stage 6. Thursday finished with an uphill kick following a Category Three climb. Despite a pair of climbs he was ill-suited for, van Aert threw caution to the wind, wedged his way into the break, and rode solo at full effort towards the final climb of the day, where he was inevitably caught and spat out the back of the pack. It was cool to see the guy in the yellow jersey take a doomed solo ride at full effort instead of doing something as staid as protecting his team leader, but his gamble opened the door for Powless. EF spent the inter-climb portion of the race chasing down van Aert, which helped set up the pack finish. This was where Pogacar did his thing: The 10-second bonus he earned for the stage win was enough to overcome the six seconds he started the stage behind Powless. Would Pogacar be in yellow if not for Bettiol’s efforts?
La Super Planche des Belles Filles looms. The first summit finish of the race comes after Primoz Roglic, Pogacar’s primary challenger, lost two minutes on the Roubaix stage after a run of bad luck—he had to reset his own dislocated shoulder. Pogacar’s lead over the non-Roglic group of contenders is not untouchable, as most of the others are within one minute, but Pogacar has only once cracked on a climb, and he recovered in time to kick everyone’s ass in the sprint anyway. Powless won’t and shouldn’t give up; four seconds is within the margin of error on any weird stuff happening to Pogacar. He also has two minutes on presumptive EF team leader Rigoberto Uran. Hopefully Powless has earned the right to take another shot at riding into the yellow jersey.