No longer backing Contador, Majka stepping up a level in Grand Tours

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He’s been a rider who has had to play second fiddle to previous team leader Alberto Contador but, following a move away from the Tinkoff team, Rafal Majka now has the opportunity and the ambition of team leadership in Grand Tours.

The 27 year old Polish rider moved to the Bora-hansgrohe team over the winter and will share top billing as a GC rider to new teammate Leopold König. The latter has already said that he will target the Giro d’Italia in 2017 and is unlikely to ride the Tour de France.

This clears the way for Majka to put everything into a big ride there.

“I have finished the Giro in the top five, the Vuelta in the top three,” Majka told CyclingTips at the team training camp in Valencia, Spain. “I want to finish also in the top five in the Tour de France because if you never try, you never know.

“I always went to the Tour de France to help the big riders like Alberto. I also took the polka-dot jersey two times and I was happy, and have also won some stages. But now there is another goal. I need to try to be up there with the best guys.”

Majka showed class at a young age back in 2013 when he finished second in Milan-Turin and third in Il Lombardia. He was also seventh overall in the Giro d’Italia.

The following season he took sixth in the Italian Grand Tour, then went to the Tour de France with the aim of riding for Alberto Contador. He had more freedom after the Spaniard crashed out and took stages 14 and 17 as well as the mountains classification. He built on that by winning two stages and the overall in the Tour of Poland.

The following season he notched up another stage win in the Tour and then placed third overall in the Vuelta a España.

Majka’s momentum continued last season with a second KOM title in the Tour, fifth overall in the Giro and a fine bronze medal in the Olympic road race.

Combined, those performances have given him the confidence to split from Contador and to embrace GC leadership in races like the Tour.

“That is why I signed the contract here,” he states, welcoming the new responsibility. “When I was in Tinkoff we had big riders like Alberto Contador. I learned a lot from him. I spent five seasons with Alberto and he is a very good guy. A very professional rider.

“That is why I was happy to stay with Tinkoff, but now I also have some experience. I need to put the experience into this team, Bora hansgrohe.”

‘I hope a very great season is coming’

The German squad has spent several years in the sport but, until now, it was competing as a Pro Continental rather than a WorldTour team. It relied on invites to Grand Tours and generally didn’t match bigger teams in terms of results.

Much has changed in recent months, with a big increase in budget enabling it to bring big name riders on board, including the double world road race champion Peter Sagan. Majka and König are two others in this category and will be the big hopes in terms of general classification results.

Majka says that having Sagan on board was a plus as it helped boost the atmosphere on the team. He also said that other factors were important.

“I am happy to come here in Bora hansgrohe because we have a big sponsor in Bora and hansgrohe are very nice people.

“We have also brought a lot of staff from Tinkoff. For us things don’t change a lot but it is still the WorldTour. Before, this was a small team, but when we look from the outside, it is getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

“Before the move I was a little bit scared [as to how it would be], but it is good. We’ve got a good mix between young riders and those with experience, and also good staff.”

The team has quickly got up to speed this year, with Sagan netting second on three stages of the Santos Tour Down Under and Sam Bennett winning Race Melbourne and placing second in the People’s Choice Classic.

As for Majka, he got his own season underway in the Challenge Mallorca events. He was 22nd in the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana and seventh in the Trofeo Andratx-Mirador des Colomer. Next up is a training camp, then the Abu Dhabi Tour, Tirreno Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya.

He describes that build-up and his subsequent races as the best possible approach to the Tour de France, again reinforcing that it is his top priority.

Before then, riding well in the Classics is also important to him. He takes considerable pride from his third place in the Olympic road race and wants to put out other strong one day rides.

“I think I need to try to do Flèche and Liège,” he says. “One time I also finished top three in Lombardy. I have more experience for training and racing, so I think a very great season is coming. We hope so.”

Rafal Majka (r) with race winner Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez at the end of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana.

‘The objective is to be top three in a Grand Tour’

Asked about his programme after the spring Classics, Majka says that the final approach to the Tour will be finalised closer to that time. However the Tour of California currently looks likely. A good performance there would satisfy team equipment sponsor Specialized and, if the pattern of recent years is followed, Sagan may well also take part.

König will compete in the Giro d’Italia, leading the team. Majka says it is possible that they share leadership in the Tour but in a recent interview with CyclingTips, König said that he didn’t think this was likely.

“I don’t think that we would we would go with two riders for leadership in the Tour,” he stated then. “I think there will be only one of us.

“I did those two races [the Giro and Tour – ed.] two years ago. I think that combo is the hardest one, actually. I can’t really see myself doing this again because mentally to be ready for both is really demanding.

“If I was going for the Giro, I would prefer to start the Vuelta rather than the Tour.”

Majka says he could also do two Grand Tours in 2017, riding the Vuelta. However he suggests that he might just go for stages in the latter, noting that full recovery from the Tour is difficult.

Whatever his decision ultimately is, he is ready to embrace his new role. He shrugs off talk of pressure, saying that he knows it comes with the job and that he is prepared to work hard.

“All the big, big teams want to win the race and take the best results,” he states. “It is normal to have some pressure. Also, when the big sponsor pays you the salary, you need to have some responsibility to do the results.

“For me, I came here as one of the leaders of the team for GC. There is always stress. We have been training very well and I see in a lot of guys that they want to be bigger riders. For us it is okay.”

Providing things go to plan and he finishes in the top five of the Tour, he can then sets his sights higher. The next logical step would be podium, and then chasing yellow.

However he cautions that much needs to be done first.

“Right now it is a little bit difficult [to think of yellow]. We see that Froome is for now very strong all the time in the Tour de France. He has put a lot of minutes into the second guy. But the objective for this team is to be top three in a Grand Tour like the Giro, the Tour, the Vuelta, for sure.

“One time I tried for a podium and I did it. When you have very good legs and a very good atmosphere like this team, it is like I have free hands. Nobody pushes me and nobody puts brakes on me.”

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