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Saturday February 27th, 2021 5:20AM

Bernal's bad day sets up Slovenian battle in Tour de France

By The Associated Press
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GRAND COLOMBIER, France (AP) — The Tour de France boiled down to a battle between its two star Slovenian riders Sunday as last year's winner Egan Bernal dropped out of realistic contention.

Tadej Pogacar beat yellow jersey-holder Primoz Roglic in a dramatic mountaintop finish to Stage 15, though Roglic retains a 40-second advantage in the yellow jersey and formidable support from teammates who shepherded him up the Grand Colombier climb.

Bernal plummeted down the standings, all but ensuring the end of a five-year streak of Tour victories by his Ineos Grenadiers team, formerly known as Team Sky.

“At the moment, Roglic seems unstoppable," Pogacar said. “But today Bernal cracked and maybe one day myself or Primoz will crack too. There are still a lot of opportunities ahead."

Pogacar stayed with Roglic on the long and brutal Grand Colombier climb despite Roglic having backing from four teammates on his ascent. They drew on their last reserves to sprint for the summit finish, Pogacar taking his second stage win by a bike-length.

Pogacar and Roglic were given the same time. As the stage winner, Pogacar was awarded 10 bonus seconds in the general classification against Roglic's six for second place. Roglic leads Pogacar by 40 seconds overall.

“I was a bit too short at the end. I didn’t make any gift to Tadej. We are good friends but we both want to win. He was just stronger and I was a bit disappointed to lose the stage," Roglic said, adding that the Tour is “far from over.”

Monday is a rest day before five competitive stages including an individual time trial on Saturday, then the traditional procession into Paris on Sept. 20.

Colombian riders started the day ranked third to sixth overall behind the Slovenian duo, but all of them lost time Sunday on the 175-kilometer (108-mile) stage into the Jura mountains, and for two the challenge seemed over.

Bernal dropped off the lead group on the Grand Colombier climb and appeared to lose any chance of retaining the title as he dropped to 13th overall, 8 minutes 25 seconds off the yellow jersey. Fellow Colombian Nairo Quintana started the day fifth but also dropped back on Grand Colombier and is ninth, 5 minutes, 8 seconds off the lead.

Two more Colombian riders, Rigoberto Uran and Miguel Angel Lopez, managed to stay with the lead group and sit third and fourth in the overall standings.

Bernal said he had been feeling the effects of the first of the day's three climbs, which had a gradient reaching 22% in places.

“I was not going well from the first climb, to be honest, I was almost dropped there, I was suffering from the first climb. I told the team I was not good, but then I was trying to fight until the final and give my best," he said in a statement from Ineos Grenadiers.

“It’s difficult to say how I felt, the feeling was that I was empty — I had no power. When the other riders did a big acceleration, I couldn’t go too hard to follow, but then I recovered really quickly, but my body couldn’t react as normal."

As the long climb from the Rhone valley to the finish began, Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team had five riders including the Slovenian in the peloton. They worked well together on the climb to protect Roglic and force a pace that put pressure on his rivals.

Restrictions introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic were supposed to ensure that fans were restricted to the flatter sections and foothills and weren’t allowed to throng the narrow approaches to the summit finish. However, there were still some cheering and waving flags near the top.

___

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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