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Pogačar Is in the Pink and Dominating the Giro

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

You might think that the Giro d’Italia is far from over since Tadej Pogačar’s lead in the GC is “only” 2:40 over second-place Dani Martínez (BORA-hansgrohe) with two weeks left to race. But you’d be wrong – and it isn’t because of the numbers.

Sure, Pog’s dominant victory in the stage 7 time trial over his main GC rivals – 1:48 over Martínez, 1:59 over Geraint Thomas (INEOS Grenadiers), etc. – was a big victory and solidified his hold on the leader’s pink jersey, which he has been wearing since stage 2. But what really took the life out of his rivals was the way the UAE Team Emirates leader won Saturday’s stage 8.

Riding in a small lead group of GC contenders up the final climb of the stage to a summit finish, the Category 1 Pradi di Tivo (14.7 km @ 7%, with ramps of up to 12%), Pogačar did not explode out of the group, as is his usual style, but was content to wait, daring the others to attack him.

He didn’t have to wait long. The attacks started with about 2 km to go, with Antonio Tiberi (Bahrain-Victorious) breaking away. Pogačar easily caught up with him. Other attacks followed, one more by Tiberi, two by Thymen Arensman (INEOS Grenadiers), and there were several others, and each time the double Tour de France champ calmly reeled them in, without seeming to break a sweat.

Then, with about 300 m left to race, after a leadout by his tireless lieutenant Rafal Majka, he finally made his move, sprinting furiously to the finish line, with the rest riding in desperate pursuit. But no one could prevent him from taking his third stage victory. He crossed the line two bike-lengths ahead of Martínez and 2 seconds before Thomas who now lies 2:58 behind, in third.

The ease with which Pogačar controlled his rivals was almost cruel, like a cat playing with a bunch of mice. It was as imperious a demonstration of superiority as you’ll ever see in a road race. Even more impressive is the fact that he and UAE Team Emirates hadn’t planned on winning the stage. They just decided to go for it en route.

“I think my teammates wanted to go for the stage win as soon as we survived the first long categorised climb [the Forca Capistrella, 16.4 km @ 5.6%] with Mikkel [Bjerg],” Pogačar said afterwards. “He came back to the bunch and he was all in for chasing the group in front.

“Mikkel and [Vegard] Laengen did a super good job until the final climb and then at the bottom when I saw our guys are still good – Domen [Novak], Felix [Großschartner] and Rafa [Majka] – I was confident that we could win today… I had it more or less under control and Rafa helped in the last couple of kilometres so it was super good.”

It was obviously also a demonstration of team superiority because UAE Team Emirates controlled the entire stage even if INEOS Grenadiers were often prominent up front and BORA-hansgrohe tried to take control of the final climb. But Pogačar had three riders with him on that ascent, and then Majka put him into the ideal position to make his winning play.

So, three stages won from nine runs is impressive but there’s more to his performance than that – such as his breaking away from the peloton with about 1.5 km to go in stage 3 and trying to steal a win from the sprinters. He was caught, and the stage was won by Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick Step). And on stage 9, with the peloton pursuing stage 1 winner Jhonatan Narváez in the frantic run-up to the finish line in Naples, Pogačar was at the head of the bunch, riding a furious leadout for his team’s sprinter, Juan Sebastián Molano.

Narváez was caught with about 200 m to go and Molano finished a strong third – but watching the race leader at the front of the sprint after a tough mountain finish the previous day must have further disheartened his competition. But for Pogačar, it was just another day on the bike. “If I can help – especially in a hectic final with such bad roads – I’m happy to do so,” he said after the finish. “It’s always nice to help a friend win.”

So, barring accident or illness or an unlikely loss of form, this Giro is done and dusted. But there’s plenty of suspense left in this Giro, such as in the race for the lesser podium places, with Martínez and Thomas now occupying those places. Their only realistic rivals look to be Ben O’Connor (AG2R La Mondiale) who is fourth at 3:39 and the surprising 21-year-old Visma–Lease a Bike rider Cian Uijtdebroeks at 4:02.

Martínez may be vulnerable because his strong support rider Florian Lipowitz had to drop out of the race due to illness and INEOS looks to have a strong team riding in support of Thomas. However, the 37-year-old Briton doesn’t look like the rider who led last year’s Giro until the final-stage ITT when Primož Roglič snatched victory out of his hands. His ITT was a disappointment and he couldn’t keep up with Martínez in the stage 8 sprint. However, Thomas often goes into a Grand Tour at below his best form and eventually finds it in time to deliver a convincing performance.

There’s even more suspense in the battle for the purple, or ciclamino, jersey for the points classification winner. Three different riders have won the three bunch sprints run so far: Merlier, defending ciclamino champion Jonathan Milan (Lidl- Trek) and, in Sunday’s breathtaking finish in Naples, Olav Kooij (Visma–Lease a Bike).

Milan currently leads the competition with 174 points, with the Australian Alpecin-Deceuninck sprinter Kaden Groves in second, at 116, and Kooij sitting third at 115. These three have a distinct advantage over Merlier (100 points) in that they are good climbers (for sprinters, that is) and will likely survive the difficult climbs of the final week. Merlier probably will not. My money is on Milan, as he looks to be the strongest and most consistent of the three, and Lidl-Trek have become a very impressive team.