Should UAE Team Emirates be worried after the opening stage of the Giro d'Italia?

Tadej Pogačar succeeded in getting time on his rivals in the GC in stage one, but at what cost?

There is no arguing that Tadej Pogačar is the strongest of the general classification contenders in this year’s Giro d’Italia. We all expected it before the race, and the UAE Team Emirates rider didn’t disappoint on stage one: none of his rivals could follow his attack on the Bivio di San Vito climb and he came away with a 10 second advantage after plenty of hard work from his UAE Team Emirates squad. So much work, though, that it wasn’t just Pogačar’s rivals that suffered today. In taking such confident control over the stage, UAE Team Emirates also exposed their own strength – and it wasn’t quite what the Emarati squad would have hoped for.

The team’s intentions were clear as early as the third category Superga climb which came just after 80 kilometres of racing. It was there that Rui Oliveira took to the front of the bunch, setting a pace which put plenty of the fast men out of the back of the peloton. On the surface, it was a move that made sense: Pogačar needed to drop the sprinters if he wanted a chance at the stage win, and putting them under pressure early on was the way to do so. It worked, and the likes of Olav Kooij were out of the bunch early on. Yet still, UAE kept pacing.

As the climbs kept coming, the team in white held their status at the front of the peloton. The Colle della Maddalena was where the damage was really done, when Mikkel Bjerg pulled hard on the steep slopes, his mouth hanging open with the effort. In just a few hundred metres, the Danish rider brought the gap to the breakaway down by 20 seconds, and the peloton had been closed to halved. However, while Bjerg’s effort might have had the desired impact of dropping some of Pogačar’s key rivals (Romain Bardet and Thymen Arensman were among the victims), his turn on the front also saw some of Pogačar’s own teammates under pressure.

Domen Novak was expected to be a key domestique in the mountains for Pogačar over the next three weeks, yet the Slovenian rider struggled on second and third category climbs today, something that will be ringing alarm bells for the stages still to come. Felix Großschartner was able to pull a turn for Pogačar today, but it was short and the 30-year-old rider dropped to the back of the peloton quickly afterwards.

This meant that after all their hard work during the stage, Pogačar was left with only Rafal Majka to help him at crunch time in the closing kilometres. Bjerg had destroyed the group and his day was done, which meant that Majka was left as Pogačar’s only ally on the descent after the Maddalena and in the flat roads through the canyon that followed. On the final San Vito climb, Majka had done so much futile work trying to control attacks on the flat that he was unable to give Pogačar a lead out for his attack, and the Slovenian had to go at it alone from that point onwards.

The lack of domestiques that Pogačar had with him before the final climb in stage one of the Giro d’Italia left him vulnerable to attacks – Geraint Thomas had a go for the Ineos Grenadiers when Pogačar was close to the back of the peloton and Damiano Caruso for Bahrain-Victorious too. Today, the UAE Team Emirates rider managed to save things and he still was able to gain seconds on his rivals and finish third on the stage. On other, harder days later in this race, however, it could be a different story.

Pogačar mentioned in his pre-race press conference that his team were aware of their status as favourites and were prepared to control this year's Giro d'Italia. They tried to do that today, but it seems they underestimated the strength of other teams who are ready to capitalise on any signs of weakness. UAE Team Emirates’ objective was clear, but the execution was poor, and this is something that they are going to have to learn from as the stakes get higher later in this race.

They have the strongest man in their team with Pogačar, but he’s going to need more help to securely win this race. It might be that he’s strong enough to do it alone, but in their riding today, UAE have exposed some weak points. And this is exactly what the rest of the peloton is looking for.

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