La Vuelta a Espana: Rest Day Reflections 1

The Vuelta is like a sigh of relief.

After the pressure cooker of the Tour de France, with its whirlwind of sponsors; its media circus; its prestige; the Vuelta feels like a letting go.

Languid, sultry days traversing the dry Spanish landscape, with its rocky outcrops and deserted plains; there’s a hipster vibe to it that gives rise to an expression of feeling, an expression of movement; an expressiveness that isn’t given breathing room at the Tour.

The Giro is expressive, too, sure. Its expression lies in the landscape; the demonstrative nature of the locals; the purity of the natural climbers leaving everything out on the vicious switchbacks of the Dolomites. The Vuelta by contrast can be gruesomely relentless; there are endless ups and downs, and the late summer heat plays its own, often significant, part. Yet without the grandeur of the Alps or the arresting backdrop of the Italian scenery, it’s possible to see why some view it as the lesser of the grand tours, in terms of both difficulty and setting.

It’s far from easy though, especially at this stage in the season. The peloton is tired, after a long season of racing. They’re less given to chasing down breakaways, and breakaways less given to making the effort, outside of three riders from Spanish pro teams. The bunch move at what might appear, from an outside perspective, to be a lethargic pace. They’ve worked hard all year, and it’s hot. Yet they are still alert: judging, controlling, lying in wait. It’s still the pro peloton, after all, and just as you shouldn’t provoke a sleeping lion, underestimate them at your peril. They will strike eventually, and when they do, it will be deadly (just, not in the first week…).

They in turn, should not underestimate the course that remains ahead of them: a final week featuring the challenging terrain of Extremadura and Andalucia, and the daunting climbs of Asturias, which may not be the Pyrenees, but will test them right to the very last.

It is fair to say, given all evidence so far, that the season will not end in a whimper: it will end in a roar.

*

Stage 1’s 7.1km Prologue was never going to cause insurmountable time gaps, however with a fiendishly technical parcours, it was no mere formality. The riders who did well were those who excelled not simply at the time trial discipline, but were also punchy riders capable of some grit in the uphill sections.

Roglič, fresh from his Olympic time trial victory, dashed the hopes of Alex Aranburu who had sizzled in the hotseat for a long part of the day. The big losers of the day were Mikel Landa, and Tom Pidcock, more affected than he perhaps expected from his post-Olympic celebrations.

It was a great day for Jumbo Visma who would begin day two sporting two of the four available jerseys, with Sepp Kuss performing best on the climbing sections of the opening days’ time trial and securing the polka dot jersey. Not so good for Bahrain-Victorious’ serial GC hopeful Mikel Landa, one of the significant losers of the day in terms of time. So too, Tom Pidcock, who later admitted to suffering from the excesses of his post-Olympic celebrations.

Stage 2 was a sprint day on paper, and as it so often does, ‘on paper’ manifested itself into being, and as is so often the case, it was sadly not without incident. Agonisingly close to the 3km mark a crash in the peloton brought down a number of riders, and slowed the progress of many more. BORA were the most badly affected but as attention returned to the front of the race, the fallout from the crash would not be seen until later, with the resulting split in the peloton causing time losses to – most significantly – Adam Yates and Hugh Carthy.

Stage 3 offered an early opportunity to the climbers, and with the slopes, came the chance for the GC contenders to potentially steal a march on their rivals, with the climb of Picón Blanco waiting at the end of a tricky day. Estonia’s Rein Taaramäe took the stage honours, as the GC battle threatened to kick off but never really sparked into life, with Movistar’s Enric Mas the only man able to make a difference, claiming just three seconds from his rivals.

Stages 4 and 5 were flat stages for the sprinters, stage 5 quite literally flat as the proverbial pancake, as the race traversed the arrow-straight plains south-west of Madrid. It was a long, hot day in the saddle for the riders and the audience too, suffering as the monotonous kilometres wound out to the seemingly inevitable two-up scrap between Jakobsen and Philipsen. Would anything of note happen in the first week, in the race for the red jersey? It was looking unlikely…

All action, All the Time

Just five days into the race, I posted the following on Twitter.

It prompted a discussion which reminded me that grand tours are three gruelling, long weeks for the riders to endure, and that it wasn’t so long ago that grand tours always began this way: ponderous, cagey, and measured, a war of attrition rather than an all-out battle from kilometre zero on day one, which is what they have shifted to these last couple of seasons. There was a real split in reactions though – many who preferred this more classic style of racing, but a large number who admitted to enjoying the gripping, frenetic nature of the latter day tours.

It’s testament to the unique nature of the post-covid year and the unique set of riders we are currently enjoying that this first few days of La Vuelta should feel so… inconsequential. But with the GC battles in both the Giro and the Tour effectively tied up by the first rest day, the entertainment of stage hunting was all we had left to get excited for.

After the Giro’s precedent-setting run of breakaway wins and the nasty weather conditions that hampered a number of the GC contenders, Egan Bernal stole a march on the GC on stage 9 and carried the maglia rosa for the rest of the race, consolidating his lead and building on it

The Tour was action-packed for the wrong reasons; with crashes galore in the first few days, it was still notable for its strong breakaways, and with serial agitator Mathieu van der Poel in yellow the race was electrified from day one. Yet Tadej Pogačar’s utter annihilation of the rest of the field on stage 8 left the remainder of the race feeling flat, and the GC fire completely extinguished.

Despite the excitement of the early days and the frantic chasing of breakaways, neither the Giro nor the Tour gave us what we craved: a traditional GC battle. This Vuelta is proving to be more of a classic; a slow-burner, unpredictable and attritional, and all the more likely to provoke exciting racing in the latter stages. After the year we’ve had, despite all its thrills and spills, isn’t a good old-fashioned three week contest what we all really need? So: we would bide our time.

*

Stage 6 was the first to really enliven the race, but even then, it was relatively inconsequential in terms of the general classification standings. After a fast opening section downhill, the day was once again relatively flat, but the finish provided exactly the spectacle fans had been waiting for. The visual chaos as the cameras struggled to work out who to focus on while EF’s Magnus Cort was at the head of the race, ascending the implausible twists of the road into Cullera, meant that hearts were racing as the audience scrambled to work out who was where.

The resulting drama, as Roglič rounded the final corner with Bagioli and Mas chasing, and closed down Cort as the Dane headed for his fourth overall stage victory at the Vuelta, was breath-taking. The ensuing gaps between the GC contenders contributed a few seconds to Roglič’s advantage over the others.

Stage 7 featured a gruelling uphill-downhill course through the mountains of Valencia, and you’d have been wise to bet on the breakaway, even more so once it was finally established and numbered a massive thirty riders, including many seriously strong contenders.

It slimmed down eventually to INEOS’ Pavel Sivakov and DSM’s Michael Storer, who battled it out in an ill-tempered fight up the final climb of Balcón de Alicante resulting in a gritty performance from Storer to grind out the victory. It showed up weaknesses in the GC group too, with Ciccone, Carapaz and Landa losing time and Hugh Carthy retiring from the race altogether through injury.

A clear group of leaders were emerging though…

Storer and Sivakov engage in a lively debate on Stage 7

GC Outlook: Cloudy at first, Clearing later

As a result of the course setting and the low physical impact of the first few stages (hot conditions aside), the GC battle remained a mystery to be solved in the first week, with no early strikes at the overall leadership.

That wasn’t to say the red jersey did not fall on worthy shoulders. After Roglič’s initial two days in the jersey, courtesy of his stage-winning performance in the opening day’s prologue, he surrendered the leadership first to Rein Taaramäe, who then ceded it to Kenny Ellissonde. It’s always a reminder in the early stages of grand tours that the race is about more than just a handful of top riders. Seeing teams put in the hard yards at the front of the peloton to defend the leader’s jersey is a privilege, and both Intermarche Wanty-Gobert and Trek Segafredo put in an honourable shift when it was their time to do so.

As the jersey transferred back into Jumbo Visma’s custody on day six though, it was time to consider the competition and figure out who might be capable of wresting control away from the two-time winner, in his potential hat-trick year.

INEOS are the obvious choice of main challenger, but with their ever-so-polite British-inspired ‘no you, no you, I insist’ policy on team leadership, this is still up for debate. The triumvirate of possible winners spent the first few days dancing around their potential chances, Bernal deferring to Yates, despite him losing time after stage 2’s crash, and Carapaz looking inconsistent following his exertions at the Olympics.

Movistar too brought a pair of GC contenders, along with the ever-present lurking threat of Alejandro Valverde, ready to disturb the peace whenever he had the chance. Superman Lopez and Enric Mas both looked strong in the opening week, with Mas the only rider capable of taking seconds from Roglič, and when Valverde crashed out on stage 7, while some spoke of a loss of leadership in the time, others saw an opportunity for Movistar’s potential leaders to break free of the shackles of Valverde’s interminable patriarchy.

Stage 8 was another sprint stage, enabling the main peloton to keep its top dogs protected ready for the greatest challenge yet: stage 9‘s 4,500m of elevation, as the riders took on the first all category climb of the race so far, the Alto de Velefique. The day belonged to Bahrain Victorious’ Damiano Caruso. The Italian, who came second at the Giro, was once again able to capitalise on the poor form of team leader Mikel Landa to take his own chances, riding to an impressive solo victory.

Following the stage, the INEOS debate continued to rage. Adam Yates looked the strongest through the climbing sections both in stage 9 and previously, frequently going on the attack and testing his rivals, yet he has lost more time through bad luck and poor positioning than Egan Bernal, who currently sits above him in 5th in the GC.

Bernal appeared to suffer on yesterday’s climb yet it’s possible he was conserving energy, and with the rest day to recover, unless he is hampered by his back condition, he is likely to launch a fresh attack on the GC race. One of the most explosive riders around, what Bernal lacks in consistency he makes up for in pure acceleration, and if his team unite behind him, he could still be a major thorn in Roglič’s side pushing into the later stages.

Ominous in the yellow corner though, the single-minded focus of Jumbo Visma behind leader Primoz Roglič, on the face of it stands more of a chance of success simply by virtue of their dedication to one goal: to deliver Roglič safely to the final time trial, and there, hope he can repeat his recent dominant performances against the clock to secure the victory.

Roglič looks to be back to his best form, and has ridden within himself, and not taken any risks so far. Unlike his Slovenian compatriot, he has elected not to strike an early blow and try to take a commanding lead. Instead, he’s banking on his consistency and conserving energy in the hot conditions for the relentless climbing of the final week. It’s a cool, calculated approach which has served him well in the past, and if any individual has a hope of surpassing him, they will need not only their own team, but likely other teams to assist – an alliance of the big hitters might be the only way around yet another inevitable outcome in this, the final grand tour of the 2021 season.

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