BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado (VN) — For the third time in four days, Rafal Majka crossed the finish line at the USA Pro Challenge frustrated over an inability to seize the race lead.
Though he’s sitting second overall, and is poised to reach the final podium with two stages remaining, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider is fresh off an overall win at the Tour of Poland, and is growing accustomed to his new status among the best racers in pro cycling.
Though he finished sixth at the Giro d’Italia, in May, and won two mountain stages and the KOM jersey at the Tour de France, in July, the effects of a long season, as well as the effects of high altitude, have taken a cumulative toll on the Polish rider.
The inclement high-mountain weather that has marred several stages of this race hasn’t helped, either.
Majka lost 20 seconds to overall leader Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) on the cold, wet, muddy stage into Crested Butte on stage 2, won by Robin Carpenter (Hincapie Sportswear).
On stage 3, Majka crossed the finish line with van Garderen, the stage winner, at Monarch Mountain, but was unable to come around the American for the stage win. Though he was quick to congratulate the BMC rider, Majka was clearly disappointed to have missed out on the victory.
In Breckenridge on Friday, Majka was again able to finish with van Garderen after a cold and wet mountain stage that featured two categorized climbs, including near-freezing temperatures and rain on Hoosier Pass with 23km remaining.
When van Garderen upped the pace on Boreas Pass, 5km from the finish, Majka was able to follow, finishing alongside the race leader, but he was unable to take time heading into Saturday’s 16km uphill time trial in Vail, where van Garderen, the stage winner last year, is the favorite.
Majka’s last uphill time trial came at the Giro d’Italia, where he placed seventh on the 26.8km stage, 3:28 behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar), at Bassano del Grappa. Majka also finished fourth at the Giro’s stage 12 time trial, a 41.9km TT from Barbaresco to Barolo.
Majka spoke with VeloNews following the stage about the challenges he’s faced this year, including fatigue, acclimatization, and adverse weather conditions.
“I don’t feel so good, because it was so, so cold,” Majka said. “It was like [40 degrees Fahrenheit] at the top. It was really difficult for me. My team was working on the front for me, helping me when I wasn’t feeling good, and when Tejay attacked, I was able to follow. I tried to take some time in the last few hundred meters, but he was on my wheel. I think I’ll finish this race second, or third. Tejay is so strong, and I’m a bit tired after the Tour, and after Poland.”
Majka heads into Saturday’s time trial 20 seconds behind van Garderen, 17 seconds ahead of Serghei Tvetcov (Jelly Belly), and 19 seconds ahead of Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp).
Majka said he has not seen the Vail TT course, and wasn’t overly concerned about its legendary difficulty; the course climbs 1,513 feet in 10 miles, finishing at 9,663 feet.
“When it’s a hard time trial, for me, it’s okay,” Majka said. “The first five or six kilometers are flat, and then it climbs to almost 3,000 meters. For me that’s okay, but I think it’s difficult to win this race. I don’t have the same condition as before Poland and after the Tour. I was stronger then, and it’s difficult to hold the condition. When I woke up this morning, I could feel my legs, they were tired.”
Majka arrived in Colorado four days before the Pro Challenge started, seemingly at a disadvantage to riders like van Garderen and Danielson, who had been training or racing at high altitude for weeks before the race began.
Asked if he feels it is possible to win the Pro Challenge without a longer period of acclimatization, Majka said he wasn’t sure.
“Maybe, if I come here next year, I’ll try coming two weeks before,” he said. “I was suffering for the first three days at this very high altitude. But two weeks before this race is the Tour of Poland… I don’t know.”