The rise of Roglic, Sky’s new problem

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Maybe the team to take on Sky isn’t Movistar. Maybe it’s a couple quiet, understated men from LottoNL-Jumbo.

They sat on trainers, Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglic. Cooling down, as all teams do these days. Kruijswijk spoke first. I couldn’t make out what he said. Roglic responded, and I could hear that, clear across the paddock. Maybe his radio was still in; maybe he’s just a loud talker. “We have to try, eh?” he said. A little shrug. Apologetic, almost.

Ten minutes earlier he had tried. He gapped the best in the world. Took 8 seconds on Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin, and Geraint Thomas’ yellow jersey. He’d dropped Kruijswijk too, by 22 seconds. Maybe that’s what his shoulders were apologizing for. “In the end, everybody suffers,” he said, ending the conversation, because you can’t argue with that.

We talked quite a lot about Movistar’s trident before this Tour de France began. The three-pronged attack of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, and Alejandro Valverde was going to be the antidote to Team Sky’s dominance. It had to be. Something, anything, to break up the monotony.

It didn’t work. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of legs. Valverde gave it a go on the way to La Rosiere, Landa’s poked his head up the road a couple times. Quintana, clearly the most protected or possibly cautious of the three, waited. Maybe too much waiting.

They’re in 6th, 8th, and 11th now. The best, Landa, is 3’42” back. With no time trial ability to lean on, he’s nearly out of it. Ditto Quintana and Valverde. They need to be ahead going into the stage 20 time trial, and that’s looking increasingly improbable.

Roglic now sits in 4th, 2’38” behind Thomas. He’s 48 seconds off Dumoulin and 59 seconds off Froome. He is a legitimate contender. Kruijswijk is in 7th and 3’57”. Close enough that if he moves, Sky must follow.

Back in 2016, in Chianti, Italy, Roglic smashed a curvy, technical, difficult 40km time trial in 51 minutes 45 seconds. He beat Fabian Cancellara, Bob Jungels, and former hour record holder Matthias Brandle. He beat Tom Dumoulin by nearly two minutes. It was his first grand tour.

I caught a few more words of Roglic’s conversation with Kruijswijk. “Better if it was longer,” Roglic said. He was talking about the final climb. In universal cyclist sign language, he made the sign for ‘I was flying.’ It’s one hand in a light fist, twisted like a throttle. Kruijswijk smiled.

With most of the cooldown done, LottoNL’s press officer called the scrum over. Two days ago, one or two reporters wanted to talk to Roglic. Saturday it was twenty.

“I just tried it,” Roglic said. There wasn’t a plan, or at least not a firm one. If you watch the TV footage from the base of the climb, Roglic and Kruijswijk look at each other. Kruijswijk gives a little shake of his head. Not him, not today. Then Roglic goes.

“We could plan something, that we would try at the end, but I don’t know how the legs are,” Roglic said. “It’s 14 days in.”

Eight seconds gained is better than eight seconds lost, he said. It’s a long way to Paris. He’s taking it day by day. It’s only his third grand tour, after all. His second Tour de France. He’s never tried to ride for GC in the third week; never had the pressure of podium proximity. “Everyone will fight for it until the last day,” he said. “That’s all we can do.”

Then the words that should worry Sky most:

“If I can, for sure I always try.”

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