Cycling-Pogacar staying alert despite comfortable lead

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By Julien Pretot

SAINT-LARY SOULAN, France (Reuters) - Tadej Pogacar is edging closer to winning a second consecutive Tour de France title, but the Slovenian insists it is not over yet with one more mountain stage and a time trial left.

The 22-year-old last year stunned compatriot Primoz Roglic in the final time trial, on the eve of the Champs Elysees parade.

This time he enjoys a comfortable lead after winning Wednesday's 17th stage at the Col du Portet, controlling his rivals on a brutal ascent in the Pyrenees.

"This climb is a neverending story," he said of the Col du Portet, a 16-km effort at an average gradient of 8.7%.

"It's bad roads in the last eight kilometres, it's super hard, in altitude. I felt good, it was a nice test. I did enjoy the climb even though it was one of the hardest in this Tour."

Pogacar now leads Dane Jonas Vingegaard by five minutes 39 seconds, a massive advantage four days before the final stage, a largely processional ride to Paris.

There were times when the Team UAE rider had a smile on his face even when the battle with Vingegaard and Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, was raging on.

"Sometimes when I suffer I have an expression on my face that's like a smile," he said.

"It's maybe also that the camera focused on me when I passed my girlfriend and my family with five kilometres to go. But it's true that I felt pure joy on the bike and today I really enjoyed the race."

Behind the smile, Pogacar is staying focused, especially in a Tour that was marred by countless crashes in the first week.

"The Tour is over on the Champs Elysees, when you pass the finish line in the last lap," he said.

"In cycling you can have a lot of bad luck. Touching wood. For now my shape is good, I can't wait for tomorrow for the last super hard day. Then we'll see. I don't like to think about it (the title)."

Thursday's 18th stage is another mountain ride with a summit finish in Luz Ardiden, before a sprint stage on Friday and the final individual time trial on Saturday.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)