Pogačar Takes Giro Lead – But It Wasn’t Easy

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

A funny thing happened to Tadej Pogačar on his first step on the road to a crushing victory in the Giro d’Italia: he lost. The overwhelming favourite to win the first Grand Tour of the year was upset in stage 1 by a cyclist most, if not all, commentators had not seen coming, the Ecuadorian INEOS Grenadiers rider Jhonatan Narváez.

When the UAE Team Emirates leader made his expected move on the final climb of the 140 km stage, the steep but uncategorised 4 km Bivio di San Vito, he must have been surprised to find that he could not shake off the determined Narváez who seemed very comfortable in resisting the Slovenian’s attacks. Not only that, a rejuvenated Maximillian Schachmann (BORA-hansgrohe) was also hot on his wheel. Three times Pogačar tried to rid himself of his pesky pursuers and while he did distance Schachmann temporarily, Narváez stuck to him like a coat of paint.

The three riders came into the final 500 m together, with Pogačar in the lead and Narváez clearly poised to attack. And when he did, the two-time Tour de France winner had no response, apparently fatigued by his repeated attacks. To add insult to injury, he was even pipped at the line by Schachmann.

Pogačar had clearly planned to take the pink jersey on the first day of the Giro and hold it for the remainder of the race. So he was clearly disappointed by his defeat, the more so because he’d planned to dedicate the stage win to a member of his junior Pogi team who had died on Friday in a kayaking accident. This was the reason he wore a black armband during the stage.

“Unfortunately, on the last climb, I had to attack from the foot where Narváez was also very strong and could follow my wheel,” he said after the stage and blamed his loss on the fact that he had been forced to chase the breakaway. “The gap to the group in front of us was too big and I had to give everything to close it,” he said.

That only tells part of the story, however. The real reason he did not take the race leader’s jersey was overconfidence, both his own and his team’s. As a result, most of his support riders had been used up in driving the peloton for much of the stage, on the assumption that he would blow everyone away on the final climb. And so, after Rafal Majka eased up on the pedals, Pogačar was alone on that final ascent.

However, otherwise, it was a very good stage for the Slovenian as he managed to put important time between himself and his main rivals for the pink jersey. He led Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers) and several other GC contenders by 14 seconds after stage 1, with Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich PostNL) more than a minute adrift.

“The fact that I managed to drop all the GC riders is a good signal from my legs,”  Pogačar said – no doubt already thinking about how to take the pink jersey on stage 2.

Whatever he and the team had planned, it worked – though for a brief moment, everyone had their hearts in their mouths. With 11 km left to race in stage 2, and the peloton approaching the decisive Category 1 final climb to a summit finish at the Santuario di Oropa (11.8 km @ 6.1%), his front tyre went flat, he hit a small hole and crashed. Fortunately, he was unhurt and then quickly given a new bike and helped back to the peloton by his teammates.

Pogačar said after the stage that he wasn’t unsettled by the crash. “I was quite calm. I hit a hole in the city. I just had a super-fast flat tyre, I think I broke the wheel also… And then I also crashed but it was nothing serious. And I was feeling good. The team was super good today. So they bring me back to the front and then we set the pace that we like and it was perfect.”

Halfway up that ascent, with 4.5 km to the finish line, after his last support rider, the dependable Majka, eased up, Pogačar burst away from the peloton. Ben O’Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) reacted first and stayed with him for a few pedal strokes, before losing ground. The Australian was eventually joined by Thomas and led him up the mountain, as Pogačar’s lead slowly grew.

A pursuing group of about eight riders joined them and, led by a strong ride by the young German BORA-hansgrohe rider Florian Lipowitz, not only limited their losses but actually made up a few seconds on the winner. But the early effort by O’Connor cost him as he was dropped from the group, ended up losing more than a minute and fell off the podium.

So did race leader Narváez. He was dropped quite early on the climb and finished 30th, 2:03 adrift. Dani Martínez (BORA-hansgrohe) finished second in the stage, at 27 seconds, just ahead of the steady Thomas. The impressive Lipowitz finished fifth, in the same time. Pogačar now leads the GC by a hefty 45 seconds over Thomas who has the same time as Martínez in third.

Clearly, Pogačar was relieved by the win and by finally taking the race leader’s pink jersey. “I just wanted a stage win today and some gap, to test the legs a little bit,” he said. “And, yeah, the dream was to take the pink jersey. Now, I can relax a little bit the next few days with the team, and we’ll stay safe in the sprints.”

Stages 3 and 4 will almost certainly come down to bunch sprints while the two subsequent stages could be taken by enterprising breakaways or sprinters with some climbing ability. In any case, Pogačar’s lead shouldn’t be challenged until stage 8, which has another Category 1 summit finish.

I know that it isn’t over until it’s over but, realistically, unless he has a very bad day in the mountains, no rider should come close to the UAE Team Emirates leader again until they stand together on the podium in Rome on May 26.