On the last day of the Vuelta a España last year, Primoz Roglic told a Dutch journalist that his big goal of 2019 had been to win the Giro d’Italia and in 2020 his aim would be victory in the Tour de France.
He failed in part one of that endeavour in the Giro a year ago, although still holding on for third overall, with a sizable spell in the lead and two clear time trial stage wins to boot. However, then winning the Vuelta in such dominating fashion – it was a lacklustre field compared to other seasons, but Roglic was in a class of his own all the same – was what was needed to re-estabish Roglic’s GC credentials. And that, in turn, raises the question if the Slovenian will be as good as his word and try to put an end to Sky/Ineos decade of Tour domination this autumn.
First and foremost, there’s no getting away from the magnitude of the task. Whether the Tour’s in July or September, Ineos’ trio of leaders, the squad’s huge experience winning and defending the yellow jersey, and their considerable collective strength – something Alberto Contador, for one, argues was, always critical to Sky/Ineos’ ability to crush the opposition, more than their leaders qualities per se – all puts the British team head and shoulder above the rest. But the sensation that Ineos have now got too top-heavy for their own good is also stronger than ever this year. Amid the considerable speculation about who is, actually, the top name in Ineos’ Tour team, any indecision or dithering on the road could well play into their enemies hands. That hasn’t happened when there have been two leaders in Ineos. But when there are three?
As for their overall firepower, if Ineos have always been off the front when it comes to the best practice and depth of knowledge for winning Tours, over the last two years, it’s common knowledge that Jumbo-Visma and other squads have been steadiy regaining ground. And after last year, where Ineos seemed to misfire for a significant early part of the Tour, the need for the British team to damp down any signs of the opposition getting frisky again as soon as they can will be vital if they want to keep control of the race.
Roglic forms part of another trio of leaders in Jumbo-Visma, which theoretically exposes them to the same dilemma – or trilemma – as Ineos. But there are some crucial differences. As former Tour winners, Ineos three leaders all have excellent claims to the crown. In Jumbo-Visma, with no former Tour winners, the particular power struggle between Roglic, Steven Kruijswijk and Tom Dumoulin is far more fluid. In other words, the two Dutchmen and the Slovenian have more room for manoeuvre, without it looking as if they are stabbing anybody in the back.
So of the three Jumbos, who’s most likely to go for it? Dumoulin and Kruijswijk as Dutch leaders of a Dutch team will be racing with a higher degree of local expectation and pressure while, as a rider from a country with little cycling tradition, Roglic will have less to lose if he does start sticking his head above the parapet a little more indiscretely than he should. If it does happen, too, it’ll be sooner rather than later and before he’s roped into working for the two Dutch stars.
But why should Roglic, in a straight combat with Ineos, be able to get the better of opponents as formidable as Froome, Thomas and Bernal this year? The answer is simply: the route. In last year’s Vuelta, Roglic’s strategy was to stay in contention and out of trouble in the first ten days (which he more or less managed, one nasty crash in Andorra notwithstanding), gamble it all on the one long time trial in Pau and then defend in the mountains. In this year’s Tour, if he applies the strategy and stays with striking distance of the maillot jaune come the Vosges – which he’s already said is what he’ll try to do – then the hammer could come down again.
This could also be true of Dumoulin and Kruijswijk, particularly given Dumoulin’s TT skills, and indeed the Butterfly of Maastricht clinched the rainbow jersey on a remarkably similar Worlds’s course – flat and then a very steep climb – to the Vosges. But Roglic, who took silver behind Dumoulin in that same World Championships TT course in Norway, is arguably as consistent as Dumoulin over three weeks and is also arguably a zippier climber. If Bernal, say, puts down a very sharp acceleration on a steep climb, on a good day, Roglic is the Jumbo racer who is most likely to respond well.
As for whether Roglic will be in form come August, just take a quick look at who took the victory in the only National Championships to be held in Europe so far. It’s ‘only’ the Slovenian Nationals, some might say, but once again, Roglic was where he should be – as, in almost every race he’s been expected to do well in, he seems remarkably capable of doing.
Having the right form at the right time is, obviously, a huge factor in winning Grand Tours. But another key ingredient in the victory recipe in the Tour is not making mistakes and on previous occasions, Roglic has paid cash – as the French like to say when the consequences of a mistake are overly large – for his relative inexperience in Grand Tours. The Vuelta last year was only his fifth Grand Tour, and while the team errors of the Giro d’Italia regarding bike changes and so on were visibly ironed out at the Vuelta, Roglic was still caught unawares – by his own admission – on the Vuetla’s dramatic day of echelons to Guadalajara.
However, barking mad stages like those that periodically appear in the Giro and Vuelta are far less liable to crop up in the much more predictable script of the Tour, and that could be to Roglic’s advantage. It’ll certainly mean he can concentrate on trying to tear up the script that has seen Ineos-Sky claim seven Tour wins in the last eight years.