Tadej Pogacar rides through cobbles and chaos to lay down Tour gauntlet

Stage won by Simon Clarke after leader Wout van Aert crashed

Tadej Pogacar, the defending Tour de France champion, threw down the gauntlet in a chaotic fifth stage of the race, the UAE Emirates rider leaving his major rivals in the distance in the heat and dust of the cobbled roads of northern France.

In a frenzied stage that at times seemed almost deranged, numerous crashes befell the peloton, including one caused by a rogue hay bale. Many, however, were sparked both by a dogfight to win the stage and fears among Pogacar’s rivals of losing more time to the double Tour winner.

The stage over the dreaded cobbled roads, made famous by Paris-Roubaix, was won by Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech), one of the five-man breakaway, in a photo finish. The tryptych of leadership at the Jumbo-Visma team quickly fell apart as the overnight race leader, Wout van Aert, and overall contenders Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard suffered crashes and mechanical problems that left stranded them behind a determined Pogacar.

Van Aert was one of the early fallers and then with Pogacar driving ahead, Roglic was among a group of riders brought down by a safety hay bale on the exit of a roundabout. A frantic pursuit ensued but Roglic was among the day’s big losers.

Ahead, in a perfect scenario for the Slovenian, Pogacar was pursuing the day’s breakaway group, partnered by the Belgian Classic racing specialist Jesper Stuyven (Trek Segafreddo), an expert on the ruptured farm tracks. But with Vingegaard and Van Aert frantically chasing in the final kilometres, Pogacar was reined in and the greatest deficit was avoided.

There are always losers when the Tour peloton hits the cobbles, with this stage damaging Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team’s tactical options. The Tour is far from over, but the team most expected to challenge Pogacar’s hegemony is now on the back foot, without even having tackled any major climbs.

The “wacky races”, as the 2022 Tour’s opening stages have been labelled, are now over. Thursday’s sixth stage, the longest of this year’s Tour at 219.9 kilometres, takes the convoy south to Longwy in the Meurthe-Moselle, as a prelude to Friday’s first summit finish at Super Planche des Belles Filles, location of Pogacar’s famous last-minute dethroning of Roglic in 2020. – Guardian