LONGWY, France (AP)Defending champion Tadej Pogačar won the sixth and longest stage of the Tour de France on Thursday to take the yellow jersey.

The Slovenian rider, who won the 2020 and 2021 Tours, pulled away in the sprint finish to take his first stage victory this year – and seventh of his career – ahead of David Gaudu and Michael Matthews. Pogačar now leads the Tour by four seconds ahead of American rider Neilson Powless.

“Every time I win it’s even better,” Pogačar said in televised comments. “It was super hard for the final climb and hectic and everything. I guess I had good legs to push in the end.”

Wout Van Aert was the leader heading into the imposing stage of nearly 220 kilometers (137 miles) through Belgium and northern France and was the focus of attention with a breakaway, but was caught with 11 kilometers remaining. Van Aert dropped off on the hilly final section of the stage and eventually lost more than seven minutes.

Pogačar said he had thought Van Aert could take the win on his own and credited his team with an “amazing job” getting him into position to fight for the stage win on the uphill finish of the Côte des Religieuses.

It’s the earliest that the UAE Team Emirates rider has worn yellow on the Tour after taking the lead on the 20th stage in 2020 and the eighth stage last year.

Pogačar played down the importance of taking the yellow jersey relatively early in the Tour.

“I’m super happy to take the win. Anything else is just a bonus,” he said.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports