Tadej Pogacar, beaten by Jonas Vingegaard to the Tour de France title for the second year in a row, paid a heavy price for a truncated preparation as a sudden dip in form in the third week cost him a third yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees.
The Slovenian, who suffered a wrist fracture in April, came into the Tour unsure of his form.
After two weeks of going toe to toe with his Danish rival, he was crushed by the defending champion in Tuesday's time trial before cracking in brutal fashion in Wednesday's final Alpine stage on the lung-busting Col de la Loze.
Vingegaard said his Jumbo-Visma team had a plan to make Pogacar crack, but the 2020 and 2021 champion saw it differently.
"The only moment they tried to crack me was on Marie Blanque (in the Pyrenees in the opening block of racing). He was so much better and the next day they tried to crack me completely but I won the stage (in Cauterets Cambasque)," Pogacar, who finished second overall, a massive 7:29 off the pace, told a news conference.
"After that I just cracked myself alone. Nobody cracked me it was all on me, nobody did anything to me. It was me and my bad feeling. I cracked myself."
Pogacar could not train as he wanted in May and only resumed competitive racing in late June at his national championship while Vingegaard's preparations went smoothly with an altitude training camp and the Criterium du Dauphine.
"Overall this Tour was great for the team. We came for overall victory but people close to me said after Joux-Plane and the Grand Colombier (at the end of the second week) that I didn't look very good," Pogacar, who won the Paris-Nice stage race and the Tour of Flanders Monument classic in the spring, explained.
"I didn't notice, I was going day by day and I didn't see that I was feeling worse and worse. Then for the Col de la Loze I don't have an explanation really but I think everybody has these moments in their careers."
On Saturday, however, Pogacar had recovered and rediscovered his killer instinct to win the last mountain stage.
"I was all white all week but now I've the colours back on my face," he said with a smile.
FOUR white jerseys in a row ??
Tadej Pogacar continues his domination of the youth classification at the Tour de France, adding the white jersey to his two stage wins in 2023.
?? Cor Vos
???? #TDF2023 pic.twitter.com/kDQCrWKpkp— Velon CC (@VelonCC) July 23, 2023
Pogacar, who has drawn comparisons with the great Eddy Merckx for his ability to win on all terrains and in stage races as well as one-day classics, will soon have to find a way to crack Vingegaard on the Tour.
Vingegaard's season is solely focused on the Tour while this year Pogacar sought victories in Milan-Sanremo (4th), the Tour of Flanders (1st) and Paris-Nice (1st).
He won the Fleche Wallonne but a crash on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege meant he could not prepare correctly for the Tour.
Pogacar, however, vowed he would remain the 'complete rider' as his team boss Mauro Gianetti describes him.
"Tadej is good for cycling. He can win everywhere, why would he only do the Tour? It's the most important race in the world but it cannot be just about the Tour," Gianetti told Reuters.
To take it to the next level, Pogacar will also need to win the Giro and the Vuelta, having already won three of the five Monument classics.
"The Giro is my favourite race but it's so hard to do Giro and the Tour the same year and the Tour is the biggest race in the world," he said.
"One day he will race those," said Gianetti, who has Pogacar under contract until 2027.
Pogacar also wants to beat Vingegaard on the Tour before possibly moving on to "new challenges".
"I have a huge respect for him. I think we will have a good future together - I said it like we're a couple," the Slovenian said with a laugh.
"In the future we'll still battle it out."