LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Just minutes after two Slovenian riders effectively sealed their first and second places in the Tour de France on Saturday, the president of Slovenia declared it a historic day for the tiny Alpine nation.
In a stunning climax to cycling’s most prestigious race, Tadej Pogacar crushed his older, fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic in the last stage before the largely ceremonial finish in Paris on Sunday.
“It’s unimaginable,” Slovenian President Borut Pahor said. “I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it. “Both Tadej and Primoz deserve only admiration.”
After the crucial stage on Saturday, Pahor hung a yellow flag on the presidential palace in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in the color of the jersey worn by the overall Tour leader.
“Today’s race is huge reason for national happiness and pride,” Pahor said.
The win all but guarantees that Pogacar will become the youngest post-World War II winner in cycling’s showcase race and make the two Slovenians 1-2 in the overall standings.
The Tour has gripped Slovenes since Roglic won Stage 4, then became the first Slovenian rider to wear the yellow jersey after Stage 9.
Their race within a race has seen thousands of Slovenes wearing yellow jerseys, and wishing coronavirus-enforced travel restrictions weren’t preventing them from being in Paris on Sunday.
Pogacar will roll into the French capital on Sunday, the eve of his 22nd birthday, with a lead of 59 seconds over Roglic in what is traditionally a ceremonial stage.
Pogacar was outstanding Saturday in an uphill time trial, devouring the 57-second lead that had made Roglic look impregnable before the showdown.
Pogacar will be the first rider from Slovenia to win the Tour.
Much of the nation of just two million people, known more for its alpine skiers, ski jumpers and basketball players than cyclists, came to a standstill on Saturday as it watched the crucial stage.
Most Slovenes were convinced — wrongly — that the much more experienced Roglic was likely to come out as the winner.
Appearing to defy coronavirus gathering rules, Pogacar’s home village celebrated the victory.
The mayor of Komenda, Stanislav Poglajen, said he congratulated his parents.
“For a week, I was on the verge of a heart attack,” said Poglajen. “At the beginning of the race, I didn’t believe that Tadej can make it. Primoz was so strong during previous races.” The mayor added that “after 15 minutes” he saw “how strong Tadej is.”
Born just outside Komenda, north of Ljubljana, cycling was not Pogacar’s favorite sport. He liked soccer instead, but cycling appeared almost by accident as his elder brother started training with a local club.
“I immediately wanted to imitate my brother, but unfortunately they didn’t have such a small bike for me,” Pogacar said on his website.
However, that did not stop him and he hasn’t looked back since his first race in 2008.
AP writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia