WALLERS, France: Tadej Pogacar passed his first Tour de France test with flying colours when he gained time over all his rivals on the cobbled roads in a vintage fifth stage on Wednesday.
The two-time defending champion, who was expected to suffer on the 19km of cobbles peppering the 157-km ride from Lille, finished 51 seconds behind stage winner Simon Clarke of Australia but left the overall contenders behind.
"It was a really good day for me, I didn't have any bad luck and I felt good on the cobbles," said Pogacar, who as a professional has never taken part in the Paris-Roubaix cobbled classic.
"I could not stay strong until the end but I tried."
Pogacar jumped away from the group of leading contenders with Belgian Jasper Stuyven and built a lead of almost a minute before running out of gas in the finale.
"But for sure it's a confidence booster. I have good sensations," he added.
Clarke prevailed in a lung-busting sprint finish to beat Dutchman Taco van der Hoorn and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen, who were second and third, respectively.
Wout van Aert retained the overall lead at the end of a bad day for his Jumbo Visma team, with Primoz Roglic, runner-up in 2020 and one of the pre-race favourites, losing more than two minutes to fellow Slovenian Pogacar after a crash that left him with a dislocated shoulder.
It was popped back in by his team staff but Roglic is now already trailing Pogacar by more than two minutes.
Van Aert also hit the deck but ground through the whole stage and helped his team mates to chase down all day long.
"We gave everything. Of course it was not a good day for us with the crashes and mechanicals but we showed that we're able to work hard when things do not go our way," said Van Aert.
Among the other favourites, last year's runner-up Jonas Vingegaard, also from Jumbo Visma, finished 13 seconds behind Pogacar after a long chase following a mechanical problem.
Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion, also limited the damage when he finished in Vingegaard's group.
Australian Ben O'Connor, a surprising fourth overall last year, failed to make his way back into the bunch and lost more than three minutes to Pogacar.
There was more heartbreak for the Bahrain Victorious team as their leader, Jack Haig, abandoned the race after a crash.
Overall, Van Aert leads American Neilson Powless, fourth on the day, by 13 seconds, and Boasson Hagen by 14.
Pogacar sits in fourth position, 19 seconds off the pace.
Before the race even hits the mountains, he leads Vingegaard by 21 seconds.