'It's interesting, no?' – Primož Roglič builds momentum at Giro d'Italia
Faced with an obvious question, Primož Roglič gave an obvious answer. "Are you satisfied with the result, Primož?" a television reporter inquired after stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia. "Yes," he replied. What else did he need to say?
A little over a week ago in Ortona, Roglič conceded over two seconds per kilometre to Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) in the opening time trial of the Giro, and many expected the Belgian to dole out similar punishment over the 35km from Savignano sul Rubicone to Cesena on Sunday.
Indeed, over the first 13km of this test, Roglič was faring even worse than he had done in Abruzzo, shipping some 31 seconds – or 2.3 seconds per kilometre – to the Belgian. In the following Jumbo-Visma team car, directeur sportif Marc Reef feared a washout. "We thought 'oh f… how is this going to be?' because the time gap was already there," he confessed.
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Once the course swung into a section of cross-headwind, however, Roglič began to turn the tide, pulling back eight seconds on Evenepoel over the next 16km. He was quicker over the final portion of the course, too, finishing the stage in sixth place, just 17 seconds behind Evenepoel. In the overall standings, Roglič now lies third, 47 seconds off Evenepoel's maglia rosa.
"I'm old," Roglič joked. "I'm a bit slower at the start and then I'm a bit better at the finish."
Roglič is also wily. While Evenepoel admitted afterwards that he had set off far too quickly and then paid a heavy price in the headwind section, Roglič's pacing strategy was decided after early starter Edoardo Affini had provided the latest update on the conditions out on the course.
"When we did the recon this morning, there was almost no wind and it was really wet, of course," Reef said. "But when Edo Affini finished, he said there was some headwind from kilometre 16 to 27, and that was the part where Primož could take some time. So Primož started a bit on reserve and then he went faster."
Although Reef was keeping himself anxiously apprised of Evenepoel's fast start, Jumbo-Visma elected not to pass on any of that intelligence on to Roglič, reasoning that it would have served little purpose on a course as uncomplicated as this. "We didn't give any information," Reef said. "All you can do is focus on yourself and do the best performance for yourself. It's what we did in the first TT also."
In that first time trial, Roglič conceded 43 seconds to Evenepoel in under 20km, but on a longer course on Sunday, the Slovenian limited his losses beyond anybody's expectations. Even his own Jumbo-Visma management were braced for a concession in the region of the 48 seconds coughed up to Evenepoel on a similar time trial in Alicante at last year's Vuelta a España. "He lost 48 seconds there and maybe we counted a bit on that here, so this is better," said Reef.
All told, Roglič conceded just 0.48 seconds per kilometre to Evenepoel on Sunday, a vast improvement on his showing in Ortona. Reef reckoned that his rider had benefited from the week of racing since.
"The last TT was just 19km with really high speed," Reef said. "We came there straight from a camp where we did a lot of climbing and maybe Primož lacked some speed. Now after eight days, there is some more speed in the legs and there are also eight days of racing in the legs. I think if you look at Primož, he is growing into the race and that's what we're very happy about."
Roglič was not the only contender heartened by the magnitude of his damage limitation exercise on Sunday. Geraint Thomas was beaten by just a second by Evenepoel, while his Ineos teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart placed third at two seconds. In the overall standings, Thomas lies second at 45 seconds, while Geoghegan Hart is fourth at 50 seconds.
In other words, a Giro that was billed as a duel between Evenepoel and Roglič is altogether more open. The Ineos pairing are backed, after all, by the strongest team in the race, while João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), fifth at 1:07, is not quite out of the hunt either.
"It's interesting, no? It means for sure we're getting closer," said Roglič, who had taken 14 seconds out of Evenepoel on Saturday's finale in Fossombrone. "Remco is a bit in front in the GC then it's us three guys, so it should be an interesting next week."
Roglič knows that this race can ebb and flow in the most bewildering ways once it hits the highest mountains. At the corresponding point on the 2019 Giro, after all, he looked every inch the likely overall winner after a crushing victory in the San Marino time trial, but his challenge would begin to fade after two weeks. "I had probably five minutes on [Richard] Carapaz and then I was five minutes behind at the end," he said.
Still, after early crashes ended his last two Tours de France prematurely, Roglič can draw heart from reaching this point unscathed and firmly in the game. "Ah, just to be still here is already quite an achievement," he laughed.
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