PEYRAGUDES, France -- Tadej Pogacar claimed a third stage win as he sprinted away from Jonas Vingegaard in the punishing last climb of a grueling trek in the Pyrenees on Wednesday but failed to take significant time out of the Tour de France leader.
As so often in this year's race, the pair were in a class of their own and were left fighting each other in the brutal final kilometer up to Peyragudes airstrip.
Once Pogacar's teammate Brandon McNulty -- who paced his leader throughout the day through punishing ascents with an impressive effort of pure dedication -- got dropped, it was time for a final showdown in high altitude.
In the steep ramp leading to the finish, Pogacar accelerated with about 300 meters left. Vingegaard countered with ease but the two-time defending champion had the final say with a final kick that helped him surge ahead and cross first, with Vingegaard on his wheel.
With just one big mountain stage left and an individual time trial before the race reaches Paris on Sunday, Vingegaard looks set for his first Tour de France win.
But Pogacar still believes.
"I'm optimistic that I can still win the Tour," the 23-year-old Slovenian said. "Tomorrow is a harder stage, so we can try again."
Since his bad day in the Alps when he relinquished the yellow jersey to Vingegaard, Pogacar has been on the attack but has not managed to make up the time he lost to his rival.
The UAE-Emirates team has also been forced to cope with many withdrawals in his team. On Wednesday, Rafal Majka pulled out of the race just before the stage start because of a thigh injury. Pogacar had already seen his support unit reduced to four riders following the earlier withdrawals of George Bennett, Vegard Stake Laengen and Marc Soler.
"The way the team rode today with only four riders, just to take the stage win is already incredible," Pogacar said. "We can all be proud of what we have done. Without Rafal, George, Vegard and Soler, we couldn't try more. We'll see tomorrow if there is another chance."
Pogacar will have one last chance to unsettle the Jumbo-Visma team leader in the mountains during Thursday's grueling final Pyrenean stage between Lourdes and Hautacam.
After that, his last occasion to turn the race upside down will be Saturday's time trial, a discipline in which he has the upper hand on paper.
Pogacar's hat-trick of stage wins this year took his career tally to nine.
Vingegaard was runner-up last year behind Pogacar. The Danish rider has been impressive since the start in Copenhagen and once again showed no sign of weakness during Wednesday's tough ride featuring four big climbs.
McNulty completed the 130-kilometer (80.8-mile) stage podium, 32 seconds behind the pair.
With the time bonus awarded to the stage winner, Pogacar moved four seconds closer to Vingegaard, who now has an overall lead of 2 minutes, 18 seconds in the general classification. Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour champion, was dropped in the penultimate climb and lagged 4:56 behind in third place overall.