Roglic surged up the final climb to Mende to emerge as a legitimate podium contender in just his second crack at the Tour de France.
And according to one leading sport director, the 28-year-old Slovenian could perhaps go even further.
“Roglic is my favorite to win this Tour,” said UAE-Emirates sport director Joxean Fernández said. “No one is even looking at him. He has no pressure at all.
“He is the prototype of modern cycling — a real ‘chronoman’ who can climb well. We’ve him step up by winning races like País Vasco and Romandie. I think he’s capable of being strong in the third week, and with the final time trial, even win the Tour.”
Last year, LottoNL-Jumbo brought Roglic to the Tour to learn the ropes, and he delivered a stage win. This year, the former ski jumper is steadily bounding up the leaderboard as one of the team’s protected riders.
“We will see. It is a long way to Paris,” Roglic demurred on Alpe d’Huez. “My focus is the same to go day by day, and we’ll see how it goes.”
On Saturday, Roglic pounced on the final climb to Mende to gap the favorites. He only won back eight seconds to overnight leader Geraint Thomas (Sky), but he trimmed the gap to 2:38 in fourth. That’s less than a minute from second-place Chris Froome (Sky).
At 28, Roglic is having his best season yet, with overall victories at the Vuelta al País Vasco, the Tour de Romandie and the Tour of Slovenia. Roglic survived the first week, and stayed near the favorites in the Alps.
Not surprisingly, team brass is not piling too much pressure onto their promising young charge.
“It was not planned that he would be so close this year, but he is there, so now we have to defend his position,” said Frans Maessen, sport director at LottoNL-Jumbo. “He is a top-class rider. In one-week races, he is one of the best in the world. We have to see if it’s possible to be at the same level in the third week.”
There could be an opening for Roglic in the Pyrénées. If he stays close, he can smash in the final time trial. With many of the top favorites out of the Tour, including Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Urán, and Richie Porte, Roglic’s stock is rising by the day.
The tug-of-war inside Team Sky between Thomas and Froome could also create an opening. According to Fernández, Sky could be backing the wrong horse.
“Sky might make the same mistake they made in the 2011 Vuelta,” Fernández said. “They backed [Bradley] Wiggins when Froome was stronger, and they finished second and third. Here they might be backing Froome when Thomas is stronger. The legs will decide everything.”
Maessen also didn’t want to talk about the podium yet because Roglic is unproven in grand tours. In two previous grand tours, Roglic was in stage-hunting mode, winning a stage in the 2016 Giro in his grand tour debut with 58th. Last year, he won a mountain stage in the Alps in the final week en route to 38th overall.
LottoNL-Jumbo has a strong team for the mountains, with Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk, seventh overall.
“We hope to stay in the same level as the Alps,” Maessen said. “Sky and Dumoulin are a little bit better, so hopefully we can be close that.”
If Roglic keeps flying, he could very well end up on the final podium in Paris. The only question might be which step.