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HILLS TO CLIMB

Slovenia’s Pogačar in a class of his own ahead of Giro debut — Contador

Slovenia’s Pogačar in a class of his own ahead of Giro debut — Contador
Slovenia’s Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates on his way to winning the 2024 Liege Bastogne Liege. He is the favourite to win the 107th Giro d’Italia in 2024. (Photo: Pim Waslander/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar will attempt his first Giro d’Italia starting this weekend.

Tadej Pogačar is such a huge favourite for this year’s Giro d’Italia, the 107th staging of the Grand Tour race, which begins in Turin on Saturday that the real battle looks like being for the runners-up spot.

The 25-year-old Slovenian, making his Giro debut, has been imperious this season, racking up seven wins in 10 days of racing including the Strade Bianche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege which he won with audacious long-range solos.

“He’s doing something that’s not normal and he can win every race he enters,” retired Spanish great Alberto Contador said when looking ahead to the three-week battle around Italy.

“For me, he is the best cyclist in the world. It’s true he could have a crash or a mechanical problem, but he goes well in the short climbs, long climbs, he flies in time trials, he has everything.

tour de france vingegaard

The Yellow Jersey Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard (right) of Jumbo Visma and Slovenian rider Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates cross the finish line for the 12th stage of the Tour de France 2022 over 165.1km from Briancon to Alpe d’Huez, France, 14 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yoan Valat)

Pogačar won the Tour de France in 2020 and 2021 but was usurped by Jonas Vingegaard in the last two years and Contador says the Dane will again be the main obstacle for Pogacar winning for a third time in France this year.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Pogacar eats up opposition to become youngest back-to-back Tour de France winner

But he says Pogačar can break new ground and write himself in the annals of cycling alongside the likes of Eddy Merckx as can Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel.

“I think we are in a golden moment for men’s cycling,” the 41-year-old Contador, who retired in 2017, said.

“Maybe in France, Italy, Spain they don’t have a big star but we need to enjoy it whether they are from Slovenia, Netherlands or Belgium. It’s so incredible, riders like Pogačar, Vingegaard, Van de Poel.

“Pogačar is doing something that never happened in the history and also what Mathieu (Van de Poel) did in Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders we need to enjoy this time.

“Pogačar for me, he can win every race and when I say every race, if he trained 100% for Paris-Roubaix he can win that too.”

No rider has ever won all three Grand Tours in the same season but Contador believes Pogačar could do the treble.

“I think that if Pogačar wins the Giro and wins the Tour de France this year he will try for the Vuelta a Espana to make history.”

Alberto Contador

Alberto Contador of Spain (pictured), a former Grand Tour winner, predicts that Tadej Pogačar will win his debut Giro d’Italia (Photo: Sara Cavallini/Getty Images)

Immediate focus

While the UAE Team Emirates rider has never ridden the Giro, there is no doubting his ability to soak up the punishment of a three-week slog, having twice won the Tour de France.

He will also contest the Tour de France later this year and some think if he won both he might be tempted to go for an unprecedented treble and take on the Vuelta a Espana too.

Awe-inspiring Vingegaard edges closer to Tour de France glory

The Yellow Jersey Danish rider Jonas Vingegaard during the 18th stage of the Tour de France 2022 over 143.2km from Lourdes to Hautacam, France, 21 July 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Guillaume Horcajuelo)

For now, though, his thoughts are on Saturday’s 140km stage from Venaria Reale just outside Turin and ending in the city after a hilly route with three categorised climbs — a profile that gives him the chance to slip straight into the leader’s jersey, the maglia rosa.

“I’m ready to embrace all the twists and turns that Grand Tour racing brings,” Pogacar said of the challenges ahead.

“The route itself is one that should suit me and the team, but this is World Tour Cycling, and anything can happen. We’ll be taking it day by day, stage by stage, ensuring we give ourselves the very best chance of success.

“It’s truly an honour to debut in this legendary race.”

Geraint Thomas

Britain’s Geraint Thomas will lead the Team Ineos Grenadiers charge for the Giro d’Italia title in 2024. (Photo: Sara Cavallini/Getty Images)

Quality field

While the likes of Tour de France champion Vingegaard and Wout Van Aert, both injured, Primož Roglič and Remco Evenepoel are all absent, there is still enough quality in the field to test Pogačar.

Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) finished second to Roglic last year and the Welsh former Tour de France champion is the highest-profile rival to Pogačar although, at the age of nearly 38, a repeat of last year might be his best hope.

Thomas has a strong team around him with Dutchman Thymen Arensman (sixth last year) and Norwegian Tobias Foss capable of challenging in the general classification.

Australian Ben O’Connor (Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale) arrives in good form, while Belgian Cian Uijtdebroeks has the chance to make his mark after being handed his first leadership role with powerful Dutch team Visma-Lease a Bike.

This year’s Giro is the shortest in terms of overall distance since 1979 and, while there are some savage days ahead in the Alps, the climbing will be a tad less arduous than in previous years, another factor suiting Pogačar.

Italian interest will likely centre around Filippo Ganna who will be favourite for the two-time trials on offer this year.

The race finishes in Rome on May 26. Reuters/DM

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