Cycling-Pogacar gets closer to Tour title, doping suspicion hits race

By Julien Pretot

LUZ ARDIDEN, France (Reuters) -Tadej Pogacar claimed another historic victory in the 18th stage of the Tour de France to move closer to his title as a cloud of doping suspicion loomed over the world’s biggest cycling race on Thursday.

Before the start of the stage, the French public prosecutor’s office announced that it had opened a preliminary investigation into the Bahrain Victorious team after police raided the accommodation and the outfit’s bus on Wednesday.

The Marseille prosecutor’s office specified that the investigation concerned “the acquisition, transport, possession, importation of a substance or method prohibited for the use of an athlete without medical justification”.

Bahrain Victorious said they were complying with the investigation.

“I don’t know about that, it’s something completely strange,” UAE pilot Pogacar said at a press conference. “I guess it’s just one more check to see that no one is hiding anything and I think the results of the raids have been good.

“We just found out in the morning. It’s one more thing to control the sport.”

All the Bahrain Victorious riders took the start of the stage but none of them weighed on the race, having been maintained by the searches until late in the night, the Dutchman Wout Poels falling behind Pogacar in the classification of mountains.

The Slovenian’s brutal acceleration 500 meters from the finish line, at the top of Luz Ardiden (13.3 km at 7.4%), could not be matched by his rivals since the Dane Jonas Vingegaard and the Ecuador Richard Carapaz finished two seconds behind, second and third respectively.

The result was a carbon copy of Wednesday’s summit finish at Col du Portet, where Pogacar had already beaten Vingegaard and Carapaz in the second of three stage wins on this year’s tour.

“I can’t believe what is happening to me. Today was a very big stage. My legs weren’t 100% and I suffered in the Tourmalet,” said Pogacar.

“The ascent to Luz Ardiden was also difficult, but I found my rhythm and had enough energy for the final sprint.”

MASSIVE ADVANTAGE

In total, Pogacar now has a considerable advantage of five minutes 45 seconds over Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma with Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers in third place in the general classification, six seconds more.

Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo), fourth overall at the start, broke down on the penultimate ascent of the Col du Tourmalet to come out of the top 10.

Australian Ben O’Connor of AG2R-Citroën is now fourth, at 8.18am off the pace two days before the last individual time trial on Saturday.

The first forwards Matej Mohoric of Bahrain Victorious and the world champion Julian Alaphilippe were joined in the ascent of the Tourmalet (17.1 km at 7.3%) by a small group made up of the French climber David Gaudu.

Gaudu, whose monster work had prepared Thibaut Pinot for a historic Tourmalet victory in 2019, accelerated and was followed by Alaphilippe, his compatriot Pierre Latour and the Portuguese Ruben Guerreiro.

A cooked Alaphilippe was abandoned 3.5 km from the summit, Guerreiro also being left behind two km higher as French President Emmanuel Macron watched from the Tour director’s car.

Gaudu escaped on the descent but he was only 15 seconds ahead of a yellow jersey group led by the Ineos Grenadiers at the foot of the final climb.

He was caught 9.5 km from the line.

Pogacar attacks first at 3.5 km from the summit, only Vingegaard, Carapaz, Spaniard Enric Mas and American Sepp Kuss follow.

Kuss signaled before Mas started his sprint 700 meters from the line, only for Pogacar, 22, to overtake him 500 meters from the end, leaving Vingegaard and Carapaz to fight for second place after the 129.7 km. from Pau.

In addition to yellow, Pogacar now holds the white jersey for the best under-25 rider and the polka-dot jersey for the mountain classification.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by David Evans / Pritha Sarkar / Ken Ferris)

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