Tadej Pogacar led home a Slovenian one-two in Stage 9 of the Tour de France as compatriot Primoz Roglic moved into the yellow jersey after a pulsating second day in the Pyrenees.
The Slovenian duo was part of a deluxe chase quartet alongside Egan Bernal and Mikel Landa which swept up Swiss escapee Marc Hirschi with just over one kilometre remaining after a heart-in-mouth descent of the Col de Marie Blanque.
Team Sunweb’s Hirschi put in a brave sprint after spending 90 kilometres on the front of the race, but Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) and Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) powered through to deny the 22-year-old a first professional win. The victory instead went to another Tour debutant, Pogacar, who moments earlier almost hit the deck when touching wheels with his compatriot in the sprint for bonus seconds over the top of the final climb.
Roglic, a winner in Laruns two years ago, took over the race lead after yellow jersey Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was distanced on the Marie Blanque following a succession of attacks from the Slovenian duo and the white jersey of Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
Britain’s Yates came home in a second chase group 54 seconds in arrears to drop to eighth place in the general classification on the eve of the first rest day. Roglic now leads defending champion Bernal by 21 seconds after the Colombian missed out on bonus seconds over the Marie Blanque and at the finish, where he took fourth place ahead of Spain’s Landa (Bahrain-McLaren).
Frenchman Giullaume Martin (Cofidis) stays third but is now 28 seconds off the summit after he came home 11 seconds down in a five-man chase group that featured compatriot Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Trek-Segafredo duo Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema, and the Colombian pair Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) and Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic).
Hirschi spent most of the 153km stage from Pau out ahead after powering clear on the second of five categorised climbs, the Cat.1 Col de la Hourcere. At one point, the lone leader had a gap of four and a half minutes over the main field before some hefty tempo-setting by Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma train slashed the lead ahead of the all-important Col de Marie Blanque, where the expected fireworks blew up the race and turned the battle for yellow on its head.
Despite missing out on the win, Hirschi moved up to third place in the King of the Mountain standings, where he trails French duo Benoit Cosnefroy and Nans Peters (both Ag2R-La Mondiale) by 10 and five points respectively. On a quiet day in the battle for green, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) retained his lead of seven points over Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in the maillot vert race after both riders came home in the gruppetto.
Team Sunweb’s persistent attempts to get a man on the front of the race paid off when Switzerland’s Hirschi rode clear of the nascent breakaway on the first major climb, the Cat.1 Cote de Hourcere.
A frantic opening hour to the 153km stage from Pau to Laruns saw the peloton in perpetual state of uncoiled elasticity as numerous attempts to force a move were thwarted. French duo Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe – who saw their collective GC hopes nosedive on Saturday – were among the early attackers, although both riders would be dropped by the field on the Hourcere, Alaphilippe eventually coming home in the gruppetto almost half an hour in arrears.
Sunweb’s Tiesj Benoot and Nico Roche were particularly active before their 22-year-old Swiss teammate rode clear for a second time after seeing an initial effort on the Cat.4 Cote d’Artiguelouve thwarted. Hirschi was joined momentarily by Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) on the Hourcere before the German eased up to join the chasers.
With Jumbo-Visma setting the tempo in the pack to put pressure on an already isolated Adam Yates, the likes of Pinot and fellow Frenchman Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept) saw their chances of sticking with the chasers evaporate as the road hierarchy finally settled in the wake of the lone leader.
Joining Kämna in an eight-man chase group were Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates), Sébastien Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Daniel Martínez (EF Pro Cycling), Jonathan Castroviejo (Ineos Grenadiers) and Omar Fraile (Astana).
Hirschi crested the misty summit of the Hourcere with 1’15” over the chasers as news filtered through of the withdrawal of Italy’s Fabio Aru, the UAE Team Emirates rider having been dropped early before embarking on a sorry duel with the broom wagon.
In wet and dank conditions, Hirschi stretched his lead to almost three minutes over the Cat.3 Col de Soudet with Jumbo-Visma coming to the front of the pack to take the subsequent descent without any risks for their yellow jersey elect, catching Reichenbach before the intermediate sprint in Arette.
If the GC riders Bernal, Uran and Lopez had potential bridges in the break in Castroviejo, Martinez and Fraile, then that soon came to nothing when the chasers were swept up at the start of the Col d’Ichere with 42km remaining.
Hirschi crested the summit with over four minutes to play with, giving him a real chance of glory. Behind, the Jumbo-Visma rode a fast tempo for their yellow jersey elect, stringing out the regrouped peloton ahead of the decisive climb. But by now, Yates also had five teammates with him, while Bernal rode with four Ineos Grenadiers for support.
Sitting on the back of the Jumbo train all day, Yates, in his yellow jersey, looked like part of the team. The 28-year-old soon lost all his support from Mitchelton-Scott as the road hit the double-digit ramps of the climb.
After Dutchman Tom Dumoulin put in a huge pull to whittle down the pack for Roglic, Pogacar made the first move from the GC favourites, followed by an acceleration from Bernal. They rode clear with Roglic, Landa and Porte in pursuit of Hirschi, who crested the summit with just 20 seconds.
With bonus seconds available for the top three, Bernal did his best to kick clear. But his Slovenian rivals were a match for him – although in the frenzy Pogacar clipped Roglic’s wheel and narrowly avoided a tumble.
Hirschi made a daring descent to double his lead – but the flat 7km ride into Laruns was a bridge too far, and the escapee was swept up with just over a kilometre to ride. Instead of giving up, Hirschi dropped to the back of the leading group, took a few deep breaths, and tightened his shoes.
In the final sprint, Hirschi then almost did the impossible – opening it up from distance in a bid to go one better than a week before, when the Swiss was denied a maiden win in Stage 2 in Nice by Alaphilippe.
But the two Slovenians surged ahead either side of Hirschi, an ecstatic Pogacar beating Roglic by a wheel, with a frustrated Hirschi banging the handlebars as he came home for third. Bernal was once again denied bonus seconds for fourth place ahead of Landa, before the leaders awaited the chasers and the arrival of the yellow jersey.
Almost 10 minutes passed before Pinot came home, the Frenchman seeing his Tour dreams dashed by two troubled days in the Pyrenees. It would be another 20 minutes before Alaphilippe crossed the line. French hopes, however, live on through Martin and Bardet, who are among seven riders all within 44 seconds of the summit entering the first rest day.