Already wrapped carefully against the chill, Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) slipped a whistle on a pink lanyard around his neck as he prepared to descend the Col du Portet after stage 17 of the Tour de France. With low cloud dusting the mountaintop, he was carrying the whistle to warn spectators of his approach on the 8km drop to his team bus, a rare break from the quiet and unobtrusive way he has carried himself through the race to this point.
Roglic has been turning heads at every step of his transition from ski jumper to WorldTour rider, not least with his startling time trial win at the 2016 Giro d'Italia and his solo victory at Serra Chevalier on last year's Tour.
And yet even after a startling 2018 campaign marked by victories at the Tour of the Basque Country, Tour de Romandie and Tour of Slovenia, few seriously heeded the signals that he would be a podium contender in July.
The warning grew more discernible after Roglic's solid showing in the Alps, and became ever more shrill with his rasping acceleration on the finale in Mende at the weekend. Now, just four days from Paris, Roglic lies in fourth place overall, 2:47 behind yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), but only 16 seconds shy of Chris Froome's third place.
"What can I say? I'm happy that I am finished and now at the top of this mountain," Roglic smiled after placing fourth atop the Col du Portet at the end of a novel 65km leg through the Pyrenees that contained three mountain passes and some 38km of total climbing.
"It was really a tough day. I gave it all, 100 per cent and for sure I'm really happy with what I did at the end. I wanted to gain time, and I also don't really like to ride behind. I always want to give it all, so why not try? You always want to be better and better, and you need to fight every day."
The shortest road stage of the Tour was arguably its most daunting, not least because of the viciously steep Col du Portet, which brought the race to its highest point. Despite his inexperience, the 28-year-old Roglic showed few inhibitions in that rarefied atmosphere and amid some exalted company in the yellow jersey group.
The Slovenian launched his first acceleration with over 13km of the final climb still to come, an effort that was marked promptly by Froome. The four-time Tour winner had a less convincing response when Roglic produced a more venomous effort 3km from the summit, and he was irredeemably dropped when the LottoNL-Jumbo man moved clear with Thomas and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) barely a kilometre later.
Roglic reached the finish 52 seconds behind stage winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and five seconds down on Thomas, had managed to punch away from him within sight of the line. He gained some 43 seconds on a struggling Froome, who followed teammate Egan Bernal across the line in eighth.
"I was surprised but we're all humans at the end and you just need to fight every day," Roglic said when asked about Froome's unexpected setback in the finale. With a 31km time trial to come in the Basque Country on Saturday – not mention a demanding mountain leg to Laruns the previous day – Roglic has an opportunity to overhaul Froome and earn himself a place on the podium.
"He showed some weakness, but of course, I also had some not so good moments today. We'll see, it's still a long race, but you saw what Froome did in the last days of the Giro. So we'll stay focused and go day by day."
Roglic's teammate Steven Kruijswijk continued his fine Tour by placing sixth on the stage, 1:05 down on Quintana, and the Dutchman now occupies the same position on the overall standings, 4:19 behind Thomas. While he will not harbour the same podium ambitions as Roglic, Kruijswijk struck an optimistic note of improving on his placing between now and Paris.
"In the end, I just could not go with Thomas, Tom and Primoz, but I think I can be satisfied with my performance," Kruijswijk said. "That's what I came for, it's nice to have that confirmation. I'll just try to ride as well as possible to the end of the Tour and finish as high as possible. There is still a difficult stage in the Pyrenees and a time trial to come."
On Wednesday, however, the headline act in the LottoNL-Jumbo stable was Roglic, who remained coy about his chances of dislodging Froome from the podium in the coming days.
"I always want more and more and more. But still, it's only my second Tour in my life and my third Grand Tour in my life," said Roglic, who never agreed nor disagreed when it was put to him that this Tour was the chance of a lifetime.
"Yeah, maybe, maybe. But you have to be realistic. You just need to keep focused on the race and go day by day."
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