When Primoz Roglic won the opening Giro d'Italia time trial in Bologna, he seemed set to go on to dominate the race, his early season consistency indicating that he and his Jumbo-Visma team were always in control of their own destiny. Yet after 19 stages of rollercoaster racing, Roglic and his team seem battered and bruised and fighting for whatever they can salvage during the final mountain stages and the last-stage time trial around Verona.
Roglic's superb time trialing skills always meant he could gain significant time on his overall rivals but now there is a growing sense that the quiet Slovenian could lose far more time in the final high mountains than he can gain against the clock.
Roglic enjoyed five days in the maglia rosa, fought and perhaps ultimately won a battle of nerves with Vincenzo Nibali, survived a bike change debacle and a high-speed crash on the road to Como, and even a moment of difficulty over the Mortirolo in the rain.
He sits third overall, 2:16 down on race leader Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and only 22 seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but seems to be suffering and on the defensive.
"Of course, I would like to risk to win this race. If Primoz has the legs, he would like that, too. But if he feels like he's really on the limit, he will race in a way to try to save the podium," Addy Engels, the lead directeur sportif at Jumbo-Visma, admitted before the mountain stages begin on Friday.
"Primoz is a guy who wants to win but it's not about what we want, it is up to him, it's his performance. He has to make the difference somewhere before the time trial in Verona. 2:16 in 17km is too much. If he has the legs, either tomorrow on the final climb or the day after, maybe he can try. Of course, somebody has to drop him, too."
Jumbo-Visma's young teammates have ridden their hearts out to help Roglic but the Dutch team lost veteran Robert Gesink before the race and key mountain domestique Laurens de Plus abandoned due to illness during stage 7.
Engels knows it will be tactically difficult to take on Movistar and fight for the pink jersey in the coming mountain stages - on the road to San Martino di Castrozza and especially during Saturday's five-climb stage deep into the Veneto Dolomites, with the finish on the Croce d'Aune and Monte Avena climb above Feltre.
"When there is a big selection, we have less people there than Movistar," Engels said.
"It's not about 'handling' Movistar, it's about getting Primoz in the best way possible to the final, then it's up to his legs. I would feel comfortable if he could start the TT in pink, 2:16 is too much in a TT like that. I won't feel comfortable until this race is finished."
Yet both Engels and Roglic refuse to admit defeat with so much still to fight for.
"Primoz made a good impression today and still has fire in his eyes," Engels said after seeing the Slovenian arrive at the Jumbo-Visma team bus.
Roglic was again a man of few words. He revealed that his stomach problems of recent days have eased but he still feels some pain in his ribs after hitting the road-side guard rail on the descent of the Civiglio as he chased Nibali to Como on Tuesday.
"The coming days will be harder than today but you also have to stay focused in these types of stages," he said of the 222km ride to Santa Maria di Sala near Venice.
"I feel a lot better, my stomach problems are gone. I am still experiencing some inconvenience from my fall, but we are not giving up. As long as we can, we keep fighting. We are going to give everything in the last stages."
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