Defending Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) recognised that he didn't have the ideal start to the Itzulia Basque Country after losing 28 seconds to stage 1 winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in the opening time trial.
After last year’s enthralling finale to the Tour de France, where Pogačar ousted Roglič from the leader’s jersey in the Vosges time trial, interest in how the two Slovenians fared in their first TT face-off of 2021 could not have been higher.
And after back-to-back wins in the UAE Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico, on paper Pogačar looked likely to be Roglič’s biggest rival again in a race which the older Slovenian won in 2018, and previously taken two time trial wins.
However, while Pogačar was two seconds faster than Roglič at the 4.7km time check and the TT's opening third-category climb of Santo Domingo, come at the finish Pogačar had faded notably to 28 seconds behind, in fifth place.
Still, Pogačar remains the best placed of the pre-race favourites other than Roglič, and he took an upbeat stance after a perhaps larger-than-expected defeat, promising to try to turn the tables in the two summit finishes and four hilly stages that will likely be the Itzulia-Basque Coutnry's battle grounds in the days to come.
“I started a bit too hard on the TT, but I’m pleased in general with how it went, and looking forward to the next stages,” said Pogačar, who received the King of the Mountains jersey thanks to being the fastest on the Santo Domingo.
“It’s a 28-second gap” - in Roglič’s favour - “but in this race if there’s bad weather there can be a lot of [time] differences on one single stage.”
Roglič is more experienced at Basque Country racing and captured the win in the Vuelta a España, the last time he raced up the final summit finish of Arrate. Pogačar knows La Itzulia firsthand as well, despite his comparative youth. Two years ago, he impressed considerably in his first-ever performance in La Itzulia, when at just 20, he claimed sixth overall and the Best Young Rider’s classification as well, with a second place on one stage behind triple stage winner Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The Slovenian was adamant after Monday’s stage in any case that he would be able to try and turn the tables, although he admitted that in a race which is often decided by a handful of seconds, this is going to be no easy to task. As he put it, “it’s a big gap, but we will try to close it up.”
Pogačar may well have a very useful ally, too, in the shape of Brandon McNulty, his American teammate who finished just two seconds behind Roglič. And Tuesday’s tricky uphill finish in Sestao, preceded by the second category climb of La Asturiana, will be the first test of which, of the riders ahead, on Monday could have the upper hand on the climbs in the days to come.
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