"That's racing, you always expect attacks," and variants thereof was how Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) broadly summed up a hugely dramatic finale to stage 2 of the Itzulia Basque Country, in which he defended his overall lead against some punchy moves by, above all, UAE Team Emirates' duo Tadej Pogačar and Brandon McNulty.
Pogačar and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) opened up hostilities on the narrow, twisting slopes of the second-category Alto de la Asturiana and the defending Tour de France champion then made repeated attempts to split the favourites' group until McNulty went for it over the top of the climb.
But Roglič himself was shadowing that move, and finally on the descent the favourites' group reformed and the Jumbo-Visma leader remained in control from thereon. But on a theoretically straightforward stage, it was maybe not such plain sailing as Roglič would have liked.
"It's racing, you should always expect attacks, there was quite a lot of action on the last climb but it's just racing, like I said, and there's a lot of attacks," Roglic answered when asked if he was surprised at the intensity of the challenges on his GC lead.
"Sometimes you're behind, sometimes you're in front," he helpfully added, before adding, "we'll just see how it goes on the day by day."
What was puzzling was why the Slovenian did not press home his advantage when he was up the road with Sergio Higuita (EF Education-Nippo), McNulty and Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Questioned about it, Roglič hinted at a lack of collaboration but did not elaborate greatly, only saying, "If you have legs everyone can attack. We just rode a little and unfortunately they brought us back, it was a fun thing though."
The rain-soaked course itself meant attacking was complicated, with several riders suffering crashes even on the uphill. Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) went down on a right-hand bend, lost over a minute and crossed the line clutching his right arm in pain, and Euskaltel-Euskadi's Mikel Bizkarra was another crash victim.
Roglič, who has had more than his fair share of crashes recently, said that it was "nice to be there in the mix with the best guys, but it was also quite tricky going up because it was slippery and the pace was high. But I was super careful, without any problems."
Sixth on the stage, Roglič has now stretched his GC lead from two seconds on Monday over McNulty to five seconds on Alex Aranburu (Astana Pro Team) after the Basque racer upstaged the favourites for an impressive solo win.
Jumbo-Visma's first day defending Roglič's lead did not see them put in a 'killer wasps' climbing performance, though, as has been seen on other week-long stage races or in the Grand Tours when their yellow and black-coloured jerseys were present in force on the ascents.
But ultimately that did not matter, as Roglič managed to deliver a crushing performance in person that allowed him to stay in control of the stage. Although with Aranburu so close behind, there is unconfirmed speculation that he might well have preferred to let Astana take over the lead for a spell.
Roglič offered a hint he may well not have such a strong team as in other races, when he seemingly played down the pressure on his team for what remains of the always difficult Itzulia Basque Country.
"I'm here with a team of really young guys and I already had one nice result yesterday. I've also come from not such nice finish in Paris-Nice," he pointed out. "So we'll see how it's going, day by day."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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