The Tour of Slovenia got off to a dynamic start today in Nova Gorica. The first stage was expected to be unpredictable. Its parcours, featuring two back-to-back climbs outside the village of Idrija, Zadlog (category 2), and Strmec (category 3), a long descent, and another category two spike, Razdrto right before a flat finish in Postojna, offered opportunities perhaps to sprinters, breakaways, and GC riders.
An early breakaway consisting of five riders was caught ahead of the first climb, Zadrog. It was here that Bahrain Victorious went to work, with Idrija native Jan Tratnik driving the pace on the climbs he knows best. It was anticipated that today would not initially be a general classification day, but Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) told VeloNews at the start that anything was possible.
“Today it’s a bit tricky. Some steep climbs. Two smaller climbs in the end. Maybe it’s good for sprinters if the tempo’s not too high,” he said. “If someone decides to go full gas, it will be more for the GC guys. Today it will either be a bunch sprint or a small group.”
This was a form of foreshadowing on the part of the two-time Tour de France winner and UAE Team Emirates leader. When it became clear that Bahrain Victorious was going to go all out, Pogačar countered with a parry on the slopes of Zadlog.
With 59 kilometers to go, Pogačar grew impatient and launched a strong attack followed by teammate Rafal Majka, Bahrain’s GC man Domen Novak, and the American climber Sean Bennett riding for China Glory Continental Cycling Team. Matej Mohorič and Jan Tratnik tried to follow, but they ended up in no man’s land for several kilometers before each was reabsorbed by the peloton. The quartet out front stayed together until the final climb, Razdtro, after which Bennett was dropped. And then there were three. A minute and thirty-five seconds had been pulled out between the leaders and the pursuing peloton.
With 1.4 kilometers to the line, Majka attacked, and Pogačar, thankful for his help, allowed him his moment of glory. Novak could not follow, and the former Tour of Slovenia winner Majka crossed the line victorious, Pogačar’s arms in the air as well, finishing third behind Novak. The peloton trickled in 48 seconds later.
Pogačar has every right to be happy, both for Majka and himself. Functionally, the race is already almost over from a GC perspective. Only Novak is Pogačar’s nearest competition, finishing two seconds ahead, and unless someone sneaks away in a breakaway, it will come down to a mano-a-mano showdown between Pogačar and Novak on Velika Planina. The two UAE teammates were optimistic.
“It was really hot, hard stage,” Pogačar told reporters at the finish in Postojna. “Bahrain set the pace on the first climb, then the race just exploded. And then from then on, me, Rafal, and Domen Novak were together, with Rafal working really hard to stay in the front. I’m really happy that Rafal could take the win and the green jersey and we fight on the next days. It’s a good opening day for us.”
Pogačar continued: “The last few kilometers we were pretty much on the limit because it was so hot. The engines were burning. I tried to attack, Domen covered me. Rafal did a really strong attack in the final kilometer that was the winning move. It’s a perfect situation for us now.”
As for Majka, he was simply happy to be back in the race’s leader’s jersey. He won this race in 2017.
“You know, I was so happy when I won this stage. We’re coming here after the altitude training camps. It’s very good weather, hot before the Tour de France. We are surprised [by how the race turned out]. After the third, second category steep climb, when Bahrain started to attack, what should we do? We also go full gas and then behind we only see one guy with us and then we go until the end.”
When asked if the race was closed, Majka replied, “You know, in the race, it’s a race, but I think so. We will try to win GC with Tadej for the Slovenian people.”