By Julien Pretot
LA ROCHELLE, France (Reuters) - Tadej Pogacar has lit up the Tour de France in the first two mountain stages over the weekend, leading the charge of a fearless new generation ready to complete a takeover on the grand tours.
While 30-year-old Primoz Roglic leads the Tour after the first bloc of racing and remains the odds-on favorite to prevail in Paris, defending champion Egan Bernal, 23, and Pogacar, 21, are just behind.
Colombian Bernal, who last year became the youngest rider to win the Tour in 110 years, is second overall, 21 seconds behind Roglic, and Slovenian Pogacar is seventh, 44 seconds off the pace.
Pogacar won the ninth stage on Sunday after being on the attack on the brutal ascent to the Col de Marie Blanque, one day after gaining some 40 seconds on the top favorites following a bold move in the Col de Peyresourde.
"There's a generation of 20, 21, 22-year-olds who already win everything, the pace is higher than before, we're breaking all climbing records in the ascents on the Tour de France," Frenchman Romain Bardet, 29, told reporters on the first rest day on Monday.
Bardet finished second overall in 2016, but he is now finding it hard to stay among the top.
"We have to hang in there," he said.
Pogacar is impatient and even if he respects compatriot Roglic, he will pounce whenever he has the possibility.
"I have always had a lot of respect for him, and besides, I respect everyone," the Team UAE Emirates rider told reporters.
"But it's a cycling race and if I have the legs I attack. A new generation is here, and I have my own style. If I don't attack, it's because I don't have the legs."
Swiss Marc Hirschi, 22, applied the same tactics and even if he failed to win a stage, the former Under-23 world champion came close twice.
He finished second in the second stage behind Julian Alaphilippe, and ended up third on Sunday in a five-man sprint after being caught with a couple kilometers left by Pogacar and other top contenders.
Pogacar and Bernal, however, might be well inspired to win the Tour this year since another prodigy, Belgian Remco Evenepoel, could make his grand tour debut next season.
The 20-year-old, whose season ended in a freak crash at the Giro di Lombardia last month, had won all four stage races he had entered -- the Tour of San Juan, the Tour of Algarve, The Tour of Burgos and the Tour of Poland.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)