Any lingering doubts in Bologna about whether local media considered Primoz Roglic a top contender for this year’s Giro d’Italia evaporated as quickly as it takes to eat a spoonful of local Bolognese meat sauce in his press conference here on Thursday.
Question number one for the 29-year-old Slovenian - "Primoz, you are the favourite, are you not worried that you have come into form too soon?" - both confirmed his top status and was swiftly batted away by the relaxed-looking Jumbo-Visma leader.
"It’s true we have a really strong team, we’ve done some hard work specifically for this race, and I’m not really worried," Roglic told reporters. "We’ve done a nice job and I’m looking forward to starting here in two days' time."
Roglic’s track record since January has been nothing short of exceptional, with victories at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Tour de Romandie making it three wins out of three starts this season, all in WorldTour races.
Combined with a formidably powerful back-up team, all of whom attended Jumbo-Visma's pre-race press conference early on Thursday afternoon, Roglic is widely expected to shine brightly in the same Grand Tour where he took his first win at this level, a time trial in the 2016 edition when he had barely begun to impact on the international scene.
Target number one this year is a time trial, too, on Saturday, which Roglic certainly doesn’t seem to dislike.
"It’ll be a nice stage, a good challenge, a nice way to start the Giro d’Italia," was his simple but clear appreciation of the six-kilometre race against the clock, culminating with the Giro’s fourth ascent to the sanctuary of San Luca.
Should Roglic take the pink jersey on Saturday - Jumbo-Visma director Addy Engels confirmed afterwards to a small group of reporters that "it’s a realistic goal" - then the initial aim at least is to defend it. "It’s nothing something you give away easily," he argued.
Whilst former Giro time trial winner Jos Van Emden ruled himself out of a possible crack at the lead on Saturday - "it’s too steep for me,” was his categorical reply when asked about his chances - teammate Roglic is adamant they have a strong enough team to defend the pink jersey.
"Like I already said, we’ve been ready in all the races," he argued.
"For sure, the race will only be decided on the last stage into Verona, but every day is important. You have to stay focused, but we also need to enjoy this race, to like it, to have fun. Otherwise it’s way too long."
Starting from zero
As for whether, back in 2016, he expected to become a favourite in the Giro, Roglic argued: "When you start riding you think of the biggest thing you can do, wearing the pink jersey or the yellow jersey, but it’s quite different when you see all the obstacles or troubles it involves. But we’ve all worked really hard to be here and I’m proud of the place where I’m standing at the moment."
Roglic was initially coy when asked who his main rivals would be, saying "it’s not up to me to judge everyone", but he quickly singled out Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) as the main man to beat.
"We’re all starting from zero, we all have the same chances, and everybody here has already shown what their qualities can be. It will be a really big fight, especially with Nibali. He can win it too.
"Astana have shown really good condition, [Miguel Angel] Lopez is in really good shape," added Engels. "But with the main guys, if I name one, then I’ll forget a few."
As for whether they will attack with Roglic in the mountains, Engels hesitated briefly before arguing: "It depends on where we are. Before we go into the ‘real’ mountains, we’ll have done two TTs. And I mean, it will depend on the situation. But Primoz is a rider who races a lot on his instinct, and if he feels like it’s a good moment then he will not hesitate.
"Of course, he knows his numbers, but when it comes down to the real fight, it’s the head and legs which will decide which way it goes - not the power meter.
"We were surprised at his level in Romandie but I prefer to start like this, and with a team like this and a leader in this shape, rather than being in a position that we have to hope he will grow into this shape during the race. We hope he’ll get even better, but if he keeps this level, that’s already satisfying."
Engels also confirmed that the plan is still for Roglic to do the Tour de France afterwards, but looking for stage wins and riding in support of Steven Kruijswijk and Dylan Groenewegen, rather than for the overall title. The Giro, on the other hand, should be a very different story. Or as Van Emden succinctly put it: "We have one goal here, and that’s to win."
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