Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) clutches the keys of power on this Giro d'Italia without holding formal office. His performances in the time trials that bookended the race's opening week left the Slovenian with a commanding lead on his rivals for final overall victory, but the pink jersey remains on the shoulders of Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates), while he lies second overall, 1:50 down.
Life as de facto race leader has its benefits. At the finish of stage 11 in Novi Ligure on Wednesday, Conti was immediately ushered towards the podium to collect a fresh maglia rosa. Roglic, by contrast, was able to freewheel unimpeded to the Jumbo-Visma bus, parked near the gates of the late Fausto Coppi's villa on the edge of town. By the time Conti had completed his media and anti-doping duties almost two hours later, Roglic was already on the massage table at his hotel.
On the road, too, Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma team have enjoyed two relatively sedate stages since Monday's rest day on the Adriatic, as the Giro reached its somnambulant spot: the nervous energy of the first week has dissipated but the high mountains have not yet appeared on the horizon.
"UAE didn't need to pull today or yesterday, because the sprint teams took control immediately, so even if Primoz had the jersey today, it wouldn't have changed much for us," Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels told Cyclingnews. "But it's still easier, because you don't have the anti-doping control, the press conference and things like that. It's been quiet, and these two days have been good. But now the way of racing will change for the next seven stages."
On the eve of the Giro's belated entry into the mountains, Roglic holds a lead of 1:44 over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), 1:55 over Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), 3:46 over Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and 4:29 over Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana).
Thursday's 158km leg from Cuneo to Pinerolo naturally evokes the poetry of the day Fausto Coppi soloed to victory on the 1949 Giro, though the parcours of stage 12 is rather more prosaic. The lone category 1 ascent, the Montoso, is a pop quiz rather than final exam, though it might provide some pointers as to the strength-in-depth of Roglic's supporting cast after he lost his key mountain gregario Laurens De Plus in the opening week.
"The climb is a hard one so for sure it will be a test," Engels said. "It's the first time we're going to do a climb like that and I'm curious about Primoz there. I'm curious about how it goes for us with guys like [Antwan] Tolhoek and [Sepp] Kuss. Curious but confident of course. And I'm curious about our rivals too."
More robust tests follow almost immediately. On Friday, the Giro climbs to the summit finish at Ceresole Reale before tackling the Colle San Carlo en route to Courmayeur a day later. The Giro's second week concludes on Sunday with a miniature Tour of Lombardy on the shores of Lake Como. The third week, as per tradition, is a brute.
Roglic has yet to climb a mountain pass in excess of 1,000 metres on this Giro, but Engels evinced confidence that his leader would be able to withstand the onslaught from Nibali, Yates and company.
"The gaps are big especially to Yates and Lopez but one collapse and it's not that big anymore," Engels said. "But as long as Primoz keeps his level and they start the last climb together on those stages in the last week of the race, then it will be difficult to make up a couple of minutes. It might be possible that they start making the race harder and attacking earlier. We just have to be ready to react."
Roglic's sequence of results in 2019 are astonishing in their own right but are all the more remarkable in the context of his unusual backstory. The 29-year-old was a latecomer to the sport when injury impeded his career as a ski jumper. After taking up racing in 2012, Roglic joined Slovenian Continental outfit Adria Mobil the following year, then moved to WorldTour level in 2016, where his rate of development has outstripped all expectations.
The former rider Stef Clement, who rode with Roglic at LottoNL-Jumbo in 2017 and 2018, discussed Roglic's progress on Dutch radio station NPO Radio 1 earlier this week. Although Clement expressed confidence in his former team, he wondered if the Dutch public would view Roglic's performances with greater suspicion if he raced for a foreign team rather than the squad that had risen from the ashes of the old Rabobank set-up.
"In five years, he will have transformed from a ski jumper to a Grand Tour winner. If this boy had raced on a team like UAE-Emirates, Katusha or Astana, we would all have had a completely different idea," said Clement. "Every stage race Roglic started this year, he has won. These are not normal steps, but giant steps."
Engels responded to Clement's comments by telling Cyclingnews he felt it would be "unfair" if Roglic's performance were deemed suspect on the basis of a discussion about the perception of the Dutch cycling public.
"I think I understand what he is trying to say but it's something that says more about public opinion in the Netherlands than about Primoz," Engels said of Clement.
"Of course, I believe in Primoz and I believe in the team. We facilitate as much as possible in terms of training, material, nutrition and coaching in order to stay away from the dark side, to put it like that.
"It's not such a big thing. Like I said, I understand more or less what he's trying to say. But for someone like Stef who knows the team really well, it would have been a nice opportunity to explain how we work instead of saying this."