"The main opponent for me tomorrow will be myself," Primož Roglič said in Pesaro on the eve of the Giro d’Italia's stage 9 time trial to San Marino. The Slovenian's subdued interview persona could never be mistaken for Muhammad Ali's pre-fight proclamations of greatness, but he carefully clarified his statement lest there be any misinterpretation. "It's because I will be alone, and I will be fighting against myself to do as good as possible."
If the San Marino time trial has loomed large over the opening week of this Giro, then so too has Roglič's presumed supremacy on the stage. His resounding victory in the opening time trial in Bologna last weekend installed him as the favourite for Sunday's longer, sea-to-sky test, a status that has only been burnished further following Tom Dumoulin's unfortunate abandon on stage 5.
While Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) wears the maglia rosa, Roglič reaches the end of the Giro's opening phase atop the virtual rankings of the pre-race favourites. Thanks to his victory in Bologna and his deft side-stepping of the late frissons in Frascati, he holds a buffer of 35 seconds over Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), 39 over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), 44 over Miguel Ángel López (Astana) and 1:49 over Mikel Landa (Movistar).
Roglič is 5:24 down on Conti, and surely will not regain the pink jersey from him in San Marino but, come Sunday evening, he might well have placed a hefty down payment on wearing the precious garment in the Arena in Verona in two weeks' time.
Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels acknowledged that Roglič will expect to gain ground on all of his GC rivals on the 34km-long road from Riccione to San Marino, though he warned against extrapolating too much from the 8km opening time trial in Bologna. Roglič gained 2.3 seconds per kilometre on Yates and 2.8 per kilometre on Nibali there, but Engels would not be drawn into making predictions for Sunday.
"We would like to gain time, that's the main thing, but I can't say how much. It's not mathematical," Engels told Cyclingnews. "It's not like because he gained 19 seconds in 8km in Bologna that we can multiply that gap by almost five here – it doesn't work like that.
"It's a different kind of effort, of course. The profile is more or less the same as Bologna, with the flat start and then uphill, but last Saturday was only 13 minutes. This is going to be an effort of 45 or maybe 50 minutes, so that's totally different. It's less explosive, but it's also something that suits Primož really well."
If anything, Roglič seems more comfortable over longer distances. He claimed the corresponding stage in Chianti on his Giro debut in 2016 and he warmed up for this year's race with a decisive victory over Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal) in the 17km-long final time trial at the Tour de Romandie. Small wonder then, that Campenaerts himself has picked Roglič as the unbackable favourite for Sunday's time trial.
Into the mountains
While the Giro's three individual time trials provided the three compelling reasons that convinced Jumbo-Visma's to deploy him in Italy rather than at the Tour de France this season, Engels maintained that his tilt at overall victory here does not depend wholly on the gains he makes against the watch. Indeed, Roglič lost his place on the podium of last year's Tour in the final time trial, while his climbing has been the equal of his time trialling through his remarkable sequence of three stage race victories so far this season.
"Primož has shown so far this year that he's really strong in the big mountains," Engels said. “In that case does he really need to gain time tomorrow? Maybe not. But is it more comfortable if he gains time? Of course.
"Every day is going to be tricky, but if we can go into the mountains with a bigger gap, it's always better. Though at the end, you have to stay at your level for the whole Giro. If you collapse, you collapse, and then it doesn't matter if you have a gap a half a minute gap or of five minutes."
Even so, Jumbo-Visma would appreciate any additional breathing room given the loss of Roglič's key climbing domestique Laurens De Plus, but the impact of the Belgian's abandon will not be felt until the race hits the Alps at the end of next week. For now, the onus is on Roglič in the race of truth.
"There's no playing, no tactics. It's just a case of doing it as well as possible," said Engels, who added that Roglič had no ill effects from his crash on stage 6. "He's really good, he doesn't feel any pain."
Earlier in the spring, Roglič reconnoitred the stage 9 time trial and came away pleased with what he saw. The route tackles a long false flat for the first 22km before climbing more sharply into San Marino in the finale. It is, in short, a strongman's course, even if the softly-spoken Roglič would never go so far as to trumpet himself as such.
"A recon is one thing, but after these eight hard stages it will be different," Roglic said on Saturday. "We will see tomorrow after the finish line."