Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) arrived on this Vuelta a España, he said, with no obligations. A little over a week from Madrid, there also appear to be few limits on what the 20-year-old can achieve, save for those imposed by the race leader, his compatriot Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
On stage 13 on Friday, the Slovenian duo surged clear of the group of favourites with 3km remaining of the final haul up Los Machucos, an ascent whose gradients are so severe that a rider does not attack so much as endeavour to climb less slowly than his rivals.
Pogačar was the only man able to match the maillot rojo Roglič's brutal rhythm, and they combined to distance their podium rivals on the upper reaches of the climb. His overall lead successfully buttressed, Roglič did not contest the stage, allowing Pogačar to collect stage victory and move up to third overall in the process.
"I just cannot believe that I have won a second stage in my first Grand Tour," Pogačar said on taking a seat in the press tent after the podium ceremonies. "I'm just so happy I can't even tell."
Prodigious displays from young talent has been an overarching storyline in the peloton this year – who ever said the cycling season doesn't have a narrative? – and Pogačar's body of work is among the most remarkable.
This time last year, Pogačar had only just been crowned as winner of the Tour de l'Avenir. A little over eight months into his professional career, his palmarès has expanded to encompass overall victory at the Volta ao Algarve and Tour of California, sixth at the Tour of the Basque Country, fourth at the Tour of Slovenia and, as of Friday, the two toughest mountain stages of the Vuelta a España.
In the overall standings, Pogačar is now in third place, 3:01 behind Roglič but a mere 36 seconds down on world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). He has also divested Miguel Angel López (Astana) of the white jersey and distanced Nairo Quintana (Movistar), the man he dropped to win at Cortals d'Encamp on stage 9.
"It's my first Grand Tour so I don't know how I will react in the third week," said Pogačar, who will not turn 21 until six days after the Vuelta ends. "The first two weeks were perfect for me, I hope I can continue like this. I want to be there in Madrid next to Primož. I think it's possible. I'll do my best and I hope I don't have a bad day.
"I came here with no obligations. From now on, it's a bit more pressure but I still don't think I need to prove anything more. For sure, I want to have the white jersey in Madrid and maybe the top five or even top three after today, but we never know what can happen."
Yet while a podium finish in Madrid is an objective for Pogačar, he downplayed the idea that he might deny the seemingly untouchable Roglič the honour of being Slovenia's first ever Grand Tour champion.
The pair were allies of circumstance on Los Machucos on Friday, but it remains to be seen how their working relationship will develop in the days to come, starting with Sunday's summit finish at Santuario del Acebo.
"I think with Roglič, we have two different races," Pogačar said. "He wants to win overall, and I just want to finish as high as possible. Up to now, I wasn't a threat to him. Today, we were allies a bit, but you never know. For sure, we will have more fighting to Madrid.
"Primož and I know each other for a couple of years now. Since I came to be a pro, he and I have a good relationship, we know each other. He's a good guy and a good competitor, with a lot of respect."
In the closing kilometres, Pogačar was guided over his radio earpiece by UAE Team Emirates general manager Matxin Joxean Fernandez, the man who guided Juan José Cobo to his surprise – and since rescinded – Vuelta victory in 2011.
Matxin told reporters atop Los Machucos that Pogačar's sole target had been stage victory, but his goals are surely being revised upwards from here.
"On the climb, he was the only connection I had. I wasn't looking behind me," Pogačar said. "When he told me no one could follow, that was the moment to push on. When we were clear, he was cheering me to go full gas for the win."
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