The Tour of Slovenia is marking its jump to 2.HC level this year with a line up that includes five WorldTour teams and a roster that includes Mark Cavendish, recent Tour of California winner Tadej Pogacar, double Giro d'Italia stage winner Pascal Ackermann and Esteban Chaves, who also won a stage of the Giro last month as he continues to return from the Epstein-Barr virus.
Bora-Hansgrohe, Mitchelton-Scott, Bahrain-Merida, Dimension Data and UAE Team Emirates will represent the WorldTour ranks among the 19 teams that will take the start line in Ljubljana on Wednesday for five days of racing that conclude Sunday, June 23.
Cavendish will find this route more to his liking than the Tour of California courses, which included more than 20,000 metres of climbing and a high-altitude finish at South Lake Tahoe. The Manxman will have some talented competition to get past as well if he wants to nail down his first win of the season. Likely to be contesting the sprints this week are Ackermann, whose form could be high after his Giro exploits. Luka Mezgec will keep Mitchelton-Scott's hopes afloat on the sprint stages, while Bahrain-Merida has Phil Bauhaus and Henrich Haussler.
UAE Team Emirate's Pogacar, coming off an impressive win in California, is one of the top favourites for the overall win at his home race this week. Chaves, depending on his form after the Giro, could also be a contender alongside Mitchelton-Scott teammate Lucas Hamilton. Bora-Hansgrohe have Jay McCarthy, while Pogacar's hand is also bolstered by Slovenian teammate Jan Polanc.
"Maybe it’s time that I change white jersey for the green one," Pogacar said of the race leader's green jersey in Slovenia. "Tour of Slovenia is my home race and big challenge for me. The race is very good and never easy. I want to show my best here. The third and fourth stages are where the gaps will be created. Each of us will do our best and then we’ll see what happens. All the riders on our team are in very good form, and I hope we’ll take some victories."
Pogacar's teammate Polanc, who finished 14th overall at the Giro last month, said he's aiming for a stage win this week.
"My personal challenge is to take stage victory, but we’ll see if that will happen this year or some other time in the future," the 27-year-old Slovenian said. "Tour of Slovenia means a lot to me, but it’s always hard to race after the Giro. My legs feel better on some days, and not so good on others. We’ll try to put better days together and go for a good result."
Ackermann said he's looking forward to the start on Wednesday and is hoping to use his talents in a sprint finish at the end of the stage.
"We’ll go for the victory for sure, this is why we’re here," the German sprinter said. "After the Giro I had some rest, but it’s important that we take form from Giro to Slovenia and also further to upcoming races, first to the national championships. I’m well prepared, and I have a strong team behind me."
Mezgec, a Slovenian who rides for Mitchelton-Scott, said he is well-prepared for his home race, choosing to leave the Criterium du Dauphine early to rest ahead of this week.
"I’m always highly motivated for this race and I look forward to it," he said. "I do an extra step ahead of it and try to get here in the best possible form. We’re ready for sprint finish in first and last stage, and I hope I’ll keep up with the others on the last climb in second stage and sprint there as well. The third and fourth stage will be for our climbers on the team. I will lead the team on this race; I know the roads in Slovenia and know how we race here. But, of course, we have Chaves and Hamilton for the overall results."
Polanc said the lack of a summit finish this year will change the race dynamics.
"This will make racing really tight, especially for the overall victory," he said. "You will have to be careful on every metre of the race. We’ll have to fight for the bonus seconds. The riders are the ones who make racing hard, and I think this will be a hard race. We have a very strong team and we aim for top results.”
The 2019 route will take the peloton along 808 kilometres over the five stages that are meant to highlight the country's most beautiful places. Race will finish on the traditional venue on the Main Square in Novo mesto.
"The race is harder than it looks on the paper and will only get harder with each of the stages," race director Bogdan Fink said Tuesday at the pre-race press conference.
"We don't have a summit finish on this edition, but still there is a very hard climb to Predmeja on the fourth stage and other challenging sections," he said. "It will be also interesting to see who will take the last stage with the finish in Novo mesto, where the last kilometers will be different than in the past and it might not be the sprint finish we're used to."
The racing starts Wednesday with a 168.5km stage from Ljubljana to Rogaška Slatina that includes two mild KOMs, two intermediate sprints and a relatively flat run to the finish. Stage 2, a 146.3km route from Maribor to Celje, has three sprints and two climbs, the last of which is a category 2 ascent that tops out more than 20km from the finish.
The 169.8km stage 3 route from Žalec to Idrija is a full day of climbing that starts immediately with a category 4 ascent to Kozjack. A long descent and gradual build up take the peloton to the category 4 climb to Rovte at 117.5km, and then the category 3 ascent to Medvedje Brdo at 129km. A sharp descent takes the riders to the bottom of the Dole climb, a 5km category 2 ascent that averages 9 per cent grades. Twenty downhill kilometres to the finish could make this a good day for the escape.
Stage 4 from Nova Gorica to Ajdovščina could be considered the race's 'queen' stage, featuring three intermediate sprints and four KOMs, including the category 1 climb of Predmeja, which tops out 24km from the finish. The 9.1km climb averages grades of 7.9 per cent and reaches 8.6 per cent at its steepest point.
The final day, a 167.5km stage from Trebnje to Novo mesto, includes three intermediate sprints to spice things up, as well as two tricky climbs in the final half of the race that could provide an opportunity for a late escape to spoil the sprinters' day. The final category 3 climb comes 30km from the finish.