By Julien Pretot
TIGNES, France (Reuters) - After nine days of racing, the Tour de France is Tadej Pogacar's to lose after the Slovenian crushed the opposition in the first two mountain stages to prove last year's victory was no fluke.
The 22-year-old stunned his rivals by claiming the overall lead in the last competitive stage from compatriot Primoz Roglic in an awe-inspiring ride in the time trial.
Pogacar started this year's race as overwhelming favourite and he has been delivering, looking unstoppable in the mountains to lead second-placed Ben O'Connor of Australia by over two minutes.
Pogacar could end up winning the Tour with the biggest margin since 1984, when Laurent Fignon beat fellow Frenchman Bernard Hinault by 10 minutes 32 seconds.
"Actually one of my biggest motivation was to show that last year was not a one-time thing," the UAE Team ride told a news conference on the first rest day on Monday.
"I wanted to show that I could be good again this year. All the race I've been motivated to show the world what I can do."
In a sport marred by doping scandals, Pogacar's performaces have raised eyebrows, but the Slovenian stressed that anti-doping testers had been watching him closely.
"I've had many controls to prove (my doubters) wrong. Yesterday I had two controls before the stage and one after," said Pogacar.
Pogacar came close to a major failure when his UAE team let a big breakaway take a masive gap in Friday's seventh stage but after the near save, the climber was out for revenge.
A brutal attack in the eighth stage to Le Grand Bornand and another acceleration in Sunday's stage to the Alpine ski resort of Tignes showed his rivals he would probably be untouchable in the mountains.
"The team rode themselves to the ground on Friday (to control the breakaway), they were phenomenal. So on Saturday we were really motivated to prove that we're strong and could take control of the race," said Pogacar.
"I'm pretty happy with my shape. I did expect something like this," he said.
Pogacar admitted the multiple crashes that affected his rivals, especially 2018 champion Geraint Thomas and Roglic, who abandoned the race, had helped him.
"This Tour has been very difficult from the start with a lot of crashes that affected a lot of riders," he said. "I was almost untouched."
"I felt the best on stage eight, at a super good level and it was not as cold as yesterday, which was one of the worst days on the bike for everyone."
In two Alpine stages, Pogacar has put almost four minutes into the rider who looked like his potential closest challenger, Ecuador's Richard Carapaz.
The race now heads to Mont Ventoux on Wednesday for a double ascent of the iconic climb in Provence, where British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967.
"It's a pretty historical climb. I want to be good on the Ventoux I'm not really driven by the historical dimension of if," said Pogacar.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond)