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Pogačar Looks to Have Giro d’Italia at his Mercy

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

With the dominance of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in this year’s spring Classics and the clear superiority of the UAE Team Emirates leader Tadej Pogačar in the upcoming Giro d’Italia, grumblings are being heard in the sport about the lack of suspense in road racing.

For example, former rider and current Eurosport commentator Karsten Kron declared on the Kop Over Kop podcast, “I fear that the general classification may indeed become a bit boring, although it is cycling and not a mathematical equation.”

Fellow Eurosport commentator Jeroen Vanbelleghem agreed, saying: “The field of participants [in the Giro] is not fantastic behind Pogačar.” They are both looking to the 21-year-old Visma–Lease a Bike rider Cian Uijtdebroeks to enliven the fight for a podium place – but not for the GC winner’s red jersey, or maglia rosa, and thereby inject some excitement into a competition that appears to all observers to be a foregone conclusion.

No offense to the promising Belgian rider but that smacks of desperation. Young Uijtdebroeks counts exactly one victory in his brief career, the 2022 Tour de l’Avenir. Surely there are other riders in the Giro who possess more promising palmares and are more likely to compete for a podium finish, such as Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers), Ben O’Connor (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale), Romain Bardet (dsm-firmenich PostNL), Juan Pedro López (Lidl-Trek), Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost).

Those names will not strike fear into Pogačar’s heart and even Thomas, who has won a Grand Tour and nearly won last year’s Giro, is not likely to worry the two-time Tour de France winner. But the classy British rider would certainly not mind finishing second to Pogačar at the age of 37. He is certainly the best of the rest – unless he will be riding in support of 24-year-old Thymen Arensman, as some cycling pundits suggest.

Geraint Thomas
Even Geraint Thomas, who has won a Grand Tour and nearly won last year’s Giro, is not likely to worry Pogačar. © Profmedia

The 33-year-old Bardet is an interesting podium possibility – though his last Grand Tour podium was second place in the 2016 Tour de France, more than 4 minutes behind Chris Froome. But his second place in this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège suggests he is coming into the Giro in very good form.

López, 26, won the Tour of the Alps two weeks ago on the basis of a courageous mountain stage win and clever race management. He probably doesn’t have the legs to be competitive in a tough three-week race and neither does O’Connor, who will also look to win a stage or two. And as for Carthy, who has been repeatedly touted by British commentators as a potential Grand Tour winner, he is also likely to be competitive in a stage or two but not for the GC title. I will be watching the 23-year-old German BORA-hansgrohe rider Florian Lipowitz who looked so good in this year’s Tour de Romanie in which he finished third and may turn into a very good three-week rider.

This suggests that most teams in the Giro have kept their squads loaded with one-day riders and/or sprinters, having judged that Pogačar is so superior to any GC rider in their ranks that it would be much more judicious to invest energy and resources in the quest of what is possible.

But a Grand Tour is three weeks long so Pogačar’s biggest opponents will almost certainly be the course itself and the weather, which has been very unfriendly to road racers this year. As we’ve unfortunately learned too often, anything can happen on a slick road. In addition, it only takes one bad day in a Grand Tour to turn the game around, as Pogačar discovered on stage 17 of last year’s Tour. True, he had lost training time in the runup to the race because he broke his wrist in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and was probably not his best. This year, on the contrary, he has raced little, has won almost every race he rode in and appears to be in the form of his life coming into the Giro.

All things being equal, and barring accident or illness, he should win the race by at least 5 minutes but probably more. Knowing his appetite for domination, he will not take it easy even after he has sewed up the red jersey. In 2006, Ivan Basso won the Giro by an astonishing 9:16. I can see Pogačar using that result as a benchmark if everything goes his way.

The real suspense will therefore be in the race for the points classification, and that is why most teams have loaded up on sprinters and leadout riders. There are six stages in the race suited for a bunch sprint, with another two or three lumpy stages that could also end in a sprint, depending on how the stage is run.

The favourites are Olaf Kooij (Visma–Lease a Bike), Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick Step), Caleb Ewan (Jaco AlUla), Jonathan Milan (Lidl Trek), Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty) and Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck). That many top-level sprinters in a Grand Tour should make for some fascinating racing. I have absolutely no idea who will win the purple, or ciclamino, jersey for the points winner.

The 23-year-old Milan won last year’s purple jersey and is probably the favourite this year, on that basis alone. But it won’t be easy. Kooij is only 22 and is riding in his first Grand Tour. He racked up four wins this spring and has a total of 32 victories in his brief career. He may be the next big thing in sprinting but first, he has to prove that he can finish a difficult three-week race. Merlier, who is 31, has had a big spring with nine wins. But he has already raced in three Grand Tours with nothing to show for it and his team is in a slump.

The 29-year-old Ewan has 61 wins to his credit but he is coming off a bad year. He has to prove that he is back to his old form, in which he won five Giro stages and five stages in the Tour. Girmay and Groves have not shown good form this spring, though the 24-year-old Eritrean boasts a victory in the 2022 Giro and will be looking for a repeat. Groves has not won a race this year, though he may have been saving his legs for the Giro. He won the green jersey in the 2023 Vuelta and a stage in the Giro the same year, so he definitely has the chops.

Your guess is as good as mine – though I am looking forward to watching Kooij against Milan in the closing 100 m of a stage.