It is easy to forget just how young Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida) is. The Slovenian has been on the world stage for quite some time, after all. Winning the junior world title in Valkenburg in 2012 signalled him out as a rider to watch. Repeating the feat at under-23 level the following autumn made him one of the most sought-after talents in world cycling.
Since moving up to WorldTour level in 2014, Mohoric has never quite lived up to the billing of his amateur exploits, but a stage win at last year’s Vuelta a España signalled that his stock was rising steadily. Victory on stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia in Gualdo Tadino on Tuesday continued that upward trajectory, and there is ample margin for improvement – Mohoric won't turn 24 until the end of this season.
"I'm only 23 years old and I'm already in my fifth season as a professional," Mohoric said on Tuesday afternoon. "I’m starting to be seen as an 'old' rider even though at next year’s Giro I'll still be eligible for the white jersey classification."
Tuesday's demanding stage from Penne to Gualdo Tadino was the longest of the Giro, and looked to lend itself to a break from distance. That was ultimately how the race played out, but only after a ferocious opening 100 kilometres of racing that saw Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) lose all hope of final overall victory.
Mohoric had infiltrated the day's early break as planned, but the forcing of Team Sky and Sunweb meant that he and his companions were pegged back as general classification contenders formed an on-the-hoof alliance to put a struggling Chaves into further difficulty. Mohoric's race began all over again on the final climb of Annifo, when he chased an attack by his former teammate Davide Villella (Astana).
"The first part of the stage was very hard. I was in the break of 13 initially and then Chaves was in difficulty so the bunch worked very hard behind and they caught us before the halfway point," Mohoric said. "At that point, I stayed close to Domenico Pozzovivo to protect him, because the GC is the team's priority. But when I saw Villella go, I asked Domenico permission to go after him. Now I'm happy to have seized the opportunity."
The leaders were joined by Nico Denz (AG2R La Mondiale), and ultimately only the German managed to stay with Mohoric all the way to the finish line after a rain-soaked descent towards Gualdo Tadino. Mohoric made several attempts to shake off Denz ahead of the finale, but any lack of confidence in his sprint was misplaced. He led into the finishing straight, but delivered a powerful acceleration to claim the win.
"I’d tried to drop Denz a couple of times because I wasn’t at all sure of beating him in the sprint, but I didn’t manage it," Mohoric said. "It was a sprint between two tired riders, I didn't have great legs anymore. Since I'm not very fast, I went from distance, from the front, with a sprint in progressione."
Mohoric signed for Bahrain-Merida from UAE-Team Emirates in the off-season. Victory at Cuenca on the 2017 Vuelta was a timely reminder of his quality, but the all-rounder gives the impression that he is still seeking out the terrain that suits him best. "I see myself more as a stage racer, but I would like to try the cobbled Classics some time too," Mohoric said. "They're races I've never done, but where I think I could do well."
It is a sentiment echoed by his team leader Vincenzo Nibali, who is currently training in Tenerife as he prepares for the Tour de France. Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Nibali praised his young teammate's attitude and intelligence – as a neo-pro, Mohoric listed his hobby as studying and took on online courses from University of Southern Denmark – and suggested his future might lie on the cobbles.
"When he has the freedom to do his own race, he almost never makes a mistake, and when he works for the team, he dedicates himself 100 per cent to that," Nibali said. "He’s a complete rider and it's difficult to know what his limits are because he can still develop a lot, one step at a time. In the Classics, I see him more suited to the cobbles more than to the Ardennes."