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Rafal Majka (Team Saxo - Tinkoff)
Pole on Giro d'Italia hopes and matching Contador
As origin stories go, Rafal Majka's is of the "Roy of the Rovers" variety, but until he matched maglia rosa Vincenzo Nibali pedal stroke for pedal stroke on the Giro d'Italia's first summit finish at Altopiano del Montasio on Tuesday, the young Pole's fledgling professional career had not yet lived up to its fabled beginning.
Invited to the Saxo Bank training camp as a callow 21-year-old in early 2011, so the legend goes, Majka dropped no less a figure than Alberto Contador on the climbs, to the shock of the Spaniard's teammates. So impressed was Bjarne Riis that he offered him a professional contract on the spot, plucking him from the relative obscurity of Italian amateur outfit Gragnano and thrusting him into the light of the WorldTour.
The reality, Majka quietly insisted to Cyclingnews, was slightly different. "I didn't drop him but I did stay with him," he said shyly. "We were in Mallorca. I wanted to stay with him because I'd just arrived as a young rider and I wanted to test myself by staying with him for as long as I could. He's a great rider."
Humble though Majka is about his beginnings as a professional, the Saxo-Tinkoff rider is politely sure of himself when it comes to his performances at this Giro to date. At Altopiano del Montasio, Majka managed to stay with Nibali and Cadel Evans (BMC) all the way to the summit, while established contenders such as Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and Robert Gesink (Blanco) slipped back.
"I don't think that it's a surprise because I came to the Giro hoping to be up there with the leaders," Majka shrugged. "I'm just very happy because you need to have good legs to be able to finish with people like Nibali and Evans, especially on a climb like that."
The great difficulty of the Altopiano del Montasio comes when the road narrows its slopes kick up dramatically inside the final four kilometres before the summit. The 23-year-old Polish rider had never competed at such an elevated level before Tuesday's stage but his strikingly gaunt frame was certainly no hindrance on the 20 percent slopes that saw off Wiggins and Gesink.
"That really steep section near the top was hard but in the end it was hard for everybody and not just for me," Majka said. "It was so steep that all you could really do was just go up at 10kph, but you needed to have good legs to be at the front."
Majka's display saw him divest Wilco Kelderman (Blanco) of the white jersey of best young rider and he now lies in 11th place overall, 4:21 behind Nibali. While his teammates gently teased him about his Paul Smith-designed white jersey as they prepared for the beginning of stage 11, Majka said that his aspirations were in the general classification rather than the young riders' competition.
"I hope to finish in the top 10," Majka said. "I don't know how the race will be. It's the first year that I've done the Giro d'Italia and it's the first time that I've done a stage race as the leader of Saxo-Tinkoff."
Still only 23, Majka admitted that being handed the keys to team leadership at the Giro was both a source of pressure and motivation. More pressingly, Majka has only completed one Grand Tour in his career thus far (he was 32nd in last year's Vuelta a España) and he faces a significant trial by ordeal in the Alps this weekend and, particularly, during the Giro's gruesome denouement in the Dolomites next week.
"I don't know how the race will develop in the third week and I don't know how my body will respond in the third week either," Majka said. "I don't know if I will suffer there or not."
Until then, at least, the comic book storyline continues.