Rafal Majka finished 38 seconds back in the Giro's...

Majka ready to challenge GC riders in Giro

Rafal Majka is Tinkoff's best hope for a podium finish at the Giro d'Italia, and he was 13th overall entering Wednesday's stage 5.

Rafal Majka confirmed his podium-challenger status Tuesday as the Giro d’Italia returned to Italy. The tricky stage 4 into Praia di Mare provided the first glimpse of where the favorites stack up, and Majka was safely tucked in with the elite group.

“On the final climb when the moves came, Rafal had no problems in following the leaders there,” Tinkoff sport director Tristan Hoffman said. “He told me that he was feeling good and easily able to move up on the climb, so he’s looking in good shape.”

These are still early days in the Giro, but the fact that Majka could follow the favorites is a good sign, and he moved up from 39th to 13th. Majka has big shoes to fill at Tinkoff, with defending champion Alberto Contador bypassing the Italian grand tour in favor of the Tour de France.

The 2016 Giro opened with all the focus on the “big three” — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and Mikel Landa (Sky) — but Majka is a legitimate Giro podium dark horse.

When VeloNews chatted with Majka back in January while he was training along the Spanish coast, he was already sounding confident for the season’s major races.

“I’ve lost weight and I’ve worked even harder than before,” Majka said. “The Giro is the first big goal of the season. I think the podium is possible.”

Now 26, Majka is hitting his stride, and this Giro could prove as his coming out party. While compatriot Michal Kwiatkowski sometimes outshines him, especially after his world title in 2014, Majka has an even more impressive palmares, and is emerging as Poland’s best stage racer in a generation — and perhaps ever.

Despite racing in the shadow of Contador, he’s already won three stages at the Tour de France in just two starts (two in 2014 and another in 2015). And he’s taken advantage when he has the chance to lead, winning the overall at the Tour of Poland in 2014, twice finishing in the top-10 at the Giro (7th in 2013, 6th in 2014), and punching onto his first grand tour podium with a third in the 2015 Vuelta a España.

This year, he returns to the Giro after skipping it last year in favor of the Tour and Vuelta, and he brings renewed confidence that he can stay with the top climbers deep into the final week. If he’s climbing like he expects to be in the homestretch, the Giro podium is very realistic.

Though he lost 38 seconds in the opening time trial last Friday, he should be able to defend against his main GC rivals in the rolling, 40.5-kilometer stage 9 time trial in Chianti. He will be hoping to limit the damage, just as he did in 2014 on a similar course around Barolo, when he was fourth in the stage, just five seconds slower than Cadel Evans.

“I’ve seen in Romandie that my form is where it needs to be after a solid period of altitude training in Cyprus ahead of the Giro,” Majka said at the start of the Giro. “I’m happy with how I’m climbing and I think this is where the real differences will be made.”

At the Tour de Romandie earlier this month, Majka was seventh in the decisive climbing stage up to Morgins and he defended a top-15 GC result in the time trial stage, but he dropped out in the final stage to avoid catching a cold during wet and chilly racing conditions (something other Giro-bound riders did, such as Marcel Kittel and Rigoberto Urán).

“Majka is our absolute leader here,” Hoffman said. “If you look to the parcours, his history, how he has been riding in Romandie, he will be our main card.”

Tinkoff brought an interesting mix of riders to back Majka. Pavel Brutt and Matteo Tosatto will shield him on the flats, while Jesus Hernandez and Pawel Poljanski will set the tempo in the mountains.

Majka certainly has the confidence. After riding onto the Vuelta podium last year, he’s done it before, and he believes he can do it again during this Giro.