PARIS -- In a stunning performance for the ages, Tour de France rookie Tadej Pogacar won cycling's showpiece race Sunday on the eve of his 22nd birthday, becoming the second-youngest winner of the 117-year-old event that this year braved - and overcame - France's worsening coronavirus epidemic.
Turning him from promising prodigy into cycling superstar, Pogacar became the youngest winner since World War II and the first from Slovenia.
His victory was remarkable, too, for the way in which he sealed it: at the last possible moment, on the penultimate stage before Sunday's finish on Paris' Champs-Elysees. During the three-week cycling marathon over all five of France's mountain ranges and 3,482 punishing kilometres (2,164 miles), Pogacar held the race lead and its iconic yellow jersey for just one stage - the last and most important one into Paris, with a yellow bike to match.
Pogacar KO'd the race and Slovenian countryman Primoz Roglic by snatching away the yellow jersey that he'd worn for 11 days, in a high-drama time trial Saturday.
Their 1-2 is the first for one country since British riders Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome also took the top spots at the 2012 Tour. Australian Richie Porte rounded out this year's podium, at age 35, after his brilliant time trial that hoisted him from fourth to third overall.
Irish rider Sam Bennett won the prestigious final sprint on the Champs-Elysees, giving him his second stage win at this Tour. He also won the race's green jersey, awarded for picking up the most points in sprints during and at the finish of stages.
With jets trailing plumes of red, white and blue smoke above the riders as they raced on the Champs-Elysees, lined with French tricolour flags, the Tour was also celebrating a victory - over the coronavirus.
When the race, delayed because of the epidemic from its usual spot in July, left the start town of Nice three weeks ago, it was unsure that riders would be able to stay virus-free to the finish.
But none of the 176 riders who started, or the 146 finishers, tested positive in multiple batteries of tests, validating the bubble measures put in place by Tour organizers to shield them from infection.
Roadside fans still cheered them on, mostly respecting riders' pleas that they wear face masks, but were kept well away at stage starts and finishes.
The only COVID-19 positives touched a handful of team employees and the race director, even as infection numbers soared across the country.
The director was back after a week of self-isolation and, in a mask, signalled the start of Sunday's stage at Mantes-La-Jolie west of Paris with a wave of his flag through the sunroof of his car.
Mask-wearing spectators waiting for the rumble of the riders' arrival on the handlebar-shaking cobbles of the Champs-Elysees said holding the Tour had lit up a dark year and demonstrated that the coronavirus need not bring all life to a grinding halt, if health measures are respected. The famous boulevard lacked its usual fervour, a victim of the virus, with the usually rows-deep crowds limited to a socially distanced maximum of 5,000 people, clumped in pens by police and barriers.
But Pauline Bourbonnaud, a 22-year-old podiatry student, said it was nothing short of “an exploit, enormous” that the Tour succeeded in keeping riders virus-free. At previous Tours, she'd been roadside when they zoomed through her region in central France. But this year's postponement to September, when she was back in Paris for her studies, allowed her to soak in the finish for the first time.
“It's important to have events like this that are diverting. People needed the Tour after a year like this,” she said.
One of the most enthusiastic backers of the pandemic-defying Tour was also its most powerful: French President Emmanuel Macron. With his government trying to revive France's COVID-battered economy, Macron praised the race as “the pride of the country” and an example of how it must learn to live with the virus and the restrictions it imposes.
“Even in September, the Tour de France is magic!” Macron tweeted Saturday after Pogacar crushed Roglic in the time trial.
Largely deprived of racing as the epidemic tore across the globe, and with those in lockdown only able to keep fit on home trainers, riders arrived at the Tour somewhat race-rusty but with the pent-up energy of caged hounds, their disrupted seasons reconfigured to make them peak physically on cycling's biggest stage.
After a slow-burn start, with multiple crashes, the racing became increasingly furious. Roglic, the winner of last year's Spanish Vuelta and a pre-Tour favourite, was backed by a powerful Jumbo-Visma team of star riders devoted to putting him in yellow - achieved on Stage 9 - and then keeping the prized jersey until Paris.
But UAE Team Emirates rider Pogacar hadn't read their script.
He first demolished Roglic's 57-second lead and then built his own Tour-securing margin of 59 seconds in the time trial, an incredible reversal of fortunes.
The birth of the Pogacar supernova is now set to ripple across the cycling galaxy for years to come. His future rivals are unlikely to repeat Jumbo-Visma's mistake of allowing him to ride his way back into contention, as he did after losing time in crosswinds in the first week, when he slumped from third to 16th.
By conquering the Tour on his first attempt, Pogacar joined an elite club of rookie winners that includes, among others, the great Eddy Merckx, who ended up winning five. He unseated Egan Bernal, who was 22 when he won last year, as the Tour's youngest champion since World War II. And he become the race's second-youngest winner ever, behind only Henri Cornet, who was just shy of 20 when he was crowned in 1904.
The lone Canadian in the race, Hugo Houle, a support rider for the Astana Pro Team, finished 47th. The 29-year-old from Sainte-Perpetue, Que., finished 91st in last year's Tour.