After the Tour de France's relatively uneventful first Alpine stage on Tuesday, leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) promised, in stark contrast, a "crazy hard" day of climbing on Wednesday when the race tackles two of the toughest ascents of the entire cycling year.
The 17.1-kilometre hors-catégorie Col de la Madeleine, which the Tour ascends on its tougher side this year, would be daunting enough climbing fare by itself. But add in the ascent to the Col de la Loze, a 21.5km climb with the last 5km averaging out at a nine per cent gradient, and it becomes even more serious a challenge.
In comparison, Roglic had a straightforward run to Villard-de-Lans on Tuesday, with only a last-minute double acceleration by his closest GC rival, Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) to trouble him briefly - and remind him who will be his biggest challenger on Wednesday.
"Today everything was under control, we’re still in yellow, but tomorrow will be nicer to watch," was the Tour leader’s succinct description of the day he had just completed, and how much more spectacular he expects Wednesday to be.
"I think it’s the Queen stage of the Tour, we finish at the highest point of the race this year and it’s just crazy hard," Roglic argued. "The last five kilometres are really difficult, it’ll be a fight for every second."
Roglic confirmed that he will be keeping the closest of eyes on Pogacar, a scant 40 seconds adrift overall, while the battle for third place on the podium - assuming no-one tries to ambush the Slovenian duo - would probably take care of itself.
He also had no reservations in describing Pogacar, a winner both in the Jura mountains on Sunday and in the Pyrenees a week before, as the best climber in the Tour.
"Tadej is the closest rival, and I expect he’ll try to attack," Roglic said. "The other guys will probably look after each other. Looking back at the mountain stages, normally Tadej was the strongest, so I need to focus on the best guys, focus on myself to do the best job, and that’s all I can do."
He was ambivalent about whether he’d prefer to see a break go up the road and soak up the bonus seconds on offer, or whether it would be better for him to keep control of the front end of the race and try to gain some time himself.
"That’s a hard question, it just depends, when you win it’s good to take a bonus, and when you don’t it’s not so good," he said. "It’ll be hard to control everything that happens, and everybody knows that last climb is very hard."
However, given he confirmed again that he’d be happy to go into Saturday’s time trial with his current 40 second buffer over Pogacar, saying "it’s better than being 40 seconds behind", Roglic seemed genuinely uncertain as to what his best option would be on the slopes of the Loze.
"On the other hand, it [your time gap] is never enough," he concluded. "Even if I had five minutes, it’d never be enough. You always want more."
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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