Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) saw his lead at the Volta ao Algarve reduced slightly when he was caught on the wrong side of a split in the peloton on stage 4, but the Slovenian did not appear to be concerned by a concession that does little to alter his task on the Alto do Malhão on Sunday.
It helped, of course, that Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep), the man most likely to deny him overall victory, was also wrongfooted in the white-knuckle finale and rolled home alongside Pogačar, 7 seconds behind stage winner Dylan Groenewegen.
The reshuffle of the general classification leaves Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) second overall, 29 seconds down on Pogačar. Wout Poels (Team Sky) moves up to third overall, at 30 seconds, while Mas remains 31 seconds down, albeit now in fourth place.
“We achieved our goal so we can be happy that we defended the yellow jersey,” Pogačar said before mounting the podium on Saturday. “The stage was pretty calm, I had everything under control. We were just careful in the last 20 kilometres because it was really fast, so I’m really happy to keep the jersey.”
Pogačar’s advantage continues to look like a winning one, not least because of the way he climbed en route to taking victory atop the Alto da Fóia on stage 2, though the Malhão, just three kilometres long and wickedly steep at the bottom, offers a different, more explosive kind of test.
The neo-professional maintains that he is more at home on longer ascents, though given his body of work so far this week, it seems difficult to envisage him conceding half a minute on its slopes.
“I think that I can ride pretty good everywhere, but the mountains are my speciality, I guess,” Pogačar said. “Malhão is more punchy but I hope I can push some good watts on that climb.”
All in on the Malhão
The final ascent of the Malhão is not the lone difficulty on the route of stage 5, of course, and considering the firepower in the Sky and Deceuninck-QuickStep line-ups, Pogačar’s rivals might be minded to to test his resolve much earlier on Sunday afternoon.
After leaving the regional capital of Faro, the 173.5km stage climbs towards the first intermediate sprint at São Brás Alportel, and then drops into the valley ahead of the day’s first classified climb, the category 3 Picota. The terrain is rugged from there on in, as the race moves inland towards the hills of the Serra do Caldeirão.
The race tackles the category 3 Alto da Ameixieira after 99km before making the first of two ascents of the category 2 Malhão at the 132km mark. A category 3 ascent of Vermelhos follows with 20km remaining, before a rippling run in to the high-octane final haul up the Malhão to the finish.
“There is a lot of climbing before the final, a lot of small climbs,” Pogačar said. “We will need to be careful every kilometre of the stage – but the decisive moment will come on the last climb.”
There is a brutal introduction at the base of the Malhão, as the gradient pitches up to 10.2% and there is scarcely any respite for the first mile or so of climbing. Only in the last 1200 metres does the gradient relent, but there is still another stiff ramp in the final kilometre before the difficult abates slightly within sight of the line.
The winning margin on the Malhão has varied in recent years, from Alberto Contador’s 20-second buffer over Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot in 2016 to Michal Kwiatkowski’s four-second gap over Ruben Guerreiro a year ago. The top ten riders on the climb have generally been spread across a half a minute or so. Pogačar does not appear to be fazed by the challenge ahead.
“We will decide about tactics later. We will do everything that we can to defend the yellow jersey and I’ll do my best on the final climb,” Pogačar said, adding: “I’m pretty confident, I’m motivated.”