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Tadej Pogačar roared to victory in Celje on Stage 3 of the Tour of Slovenia, sending a clear message to his Tour de France rivals. The two-time Tour de France winner escaped teammate Rafal Majka and former Gazprom Rusvelo rider, and now Alpecin-Fenix stagiaire, Nikola Conci, in the final kilometer. Pogačar now leads the general classification by eleven seconds over Majka. Bahrain Victorious rival Domen Novak trails Pogačar by fifty five seconds after Novak was dropped on the Svetina climb.
“We rode really perfectly,” Pogačar told reporters at the finish. “On the last climb me and Rafal decided to go together and it was enough of a gap to the top. And then the downhill was really slippery so we tried to take no risk. [Conci] from Alpecin caught us at the bottom. We knew we had to outsmart him on the final climb and yeah, it was actually a pretty hard finish so I was really happy to deliver it…I said at the beginning of the stage it’s better to go full gas on the climb than full gas on the downhill so it evens out. At the end it was perfect the way we did it.”
With the rolling hop fields of the Štajerska region on display in the background, UAE drove hard at the front for most of the stage in order to protect Pogačar and Majka from the wind. According to Pogačar, this was by design: “It was totally different than two days ago. We were controlling the race this time and me and Rafal attacked on the second last climb [in order to] be safe on the downhill. We did a good job.”
On the Svetina climb, a category 2 test, things began to heat up. Pogačar, sensing weakness, took a big dig, with only Novak and Majka being able to follow. Matej Mohorič, who told VeloNews this morning that he was targeting the stage, couldn’t hold the wheel and spent several kilometers trying to catch back on before eventually relenting. Novak too, was dropped shortly after. The Bahrain Victorious GC contender told press afterwards that he wasn’t feeling well and was sore from an unseen crash.
“Today was not my day,” Novak told VeloNews. “I feel a little bit tired and I feel a little bit of the crash…but I will try my best to stay in top three in GC. I try tomorrow again and we will see.”
Both men could be seen as victims of a muddled team strategy, where it was not clear before the stage began what the main target would be: protecting Novak’s GC or Mohorič’s stage win. When Novak dropped back, he allowed himself to rejoin the peloton and did not take another turn. Meanwhile Mohorič drove at the front of the reduced peloton with 15 kilometers to go. Another complication in the race was the dangerous descent ahead of the run-in to Celje.
“The roads were so slippery today because it was not so much rain before,” Pogačar said of the dangerous conditions. “It was just enough rain to be slippery. The last downhill was really slippery – it was hard to keep it under control.”
“Especially in the downhill…I was little bit scared” Novak concurred. Even Matej Mohorič, known for his daredevil descending, didn’t want to push it out of concern for his participation in the upcoming Tour de France. Of the stage, he said, “It was actually exactly the same as last year. We did the climb full gas and Tadej proves once more he has a bit more in the tank compared to me. I lost 15 seconds at the top and could never come back because I didn’t want to take risks in the descent.”
The victory for Pogačar meanwhile comes with bittersweet news. This morning, several UAE Team Emirates riders were sent home from their respective races due to positive coronavirus tests. Diego Ulissi, Marc Hirschi and Hirschi’s roommate Joel Suter were pulled out of the Tour de Suisse. In Slovenia, Mikel Bjerg and his roommate Vegard Stake Laengen were also sent home. Bjerg, Ulissi, and Hirschi are key domestiques for Pogačar’s run at the Tour de France, and the Slovenian expressed concern about the situation, telling VeloNews: “It doesn’t look like a good situation. It doesn’t look good.”
After the stage, he added: “We will isolate as much as possible. The first two days I was still signing some autographs and taking photos by the fence. So yeah, it’s really a shame that it’s such a situation in cycling and we try to be as isolated as possible and try to stay safe because we want to go to the Tour.”