La Vuelta a Espana: Rest Day Reflections 2

The second week of the Vuelta has been at times, as predicted, a fiery affair. Following the ponderous, often snooze-inducing flat stages of the opening week, punctuated by just a few brief interludes of excitement, the race roared to life under the sweltering Spanish sun. The week has been a big bag of surprises, with dramatic landscapes, impossible ascents, breakaway madness and tussles for supremacy in the general classification too. At times, though, it’s also been literally, and figuratively, a bit flat.

Join me for a run-down of the talking points from each stage as I pick through the best bits, and marvel as I collate the votes from a panel of one in writebikerepeat’s Vamos! Vuelta Victors (trademark pending).

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After the cagey testing of stage 9, many criticised red jersey wearer Primož Roglič for his lack of attack. He covered moves from Adam Yates and Movistar pairing of Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez to ensure none of his main rivals stole any precious seconds from him, while Damiano Caruso stormed to a stunning solo victory up the road.

Stage 10 by contrast saw a bold move from Roglič , the rest day apparently giving him the confidence to try something, and he distanced the rest of the bunch on the day’s only cateogorised climb, but not enough to prevent him striking out on the descent. His risk-taking was punished as he slid out on a corner and was unable to stay upright. Was it ill-judged? Perhaps. Did it bring the race to life? Absolutely. His critics were quick to lambast the unnecessary risk-taking, but many had been critical of his defensiveness the day before. When asked, Roglič himself simply shrugged and said ‘no risk, no glory,’ a soundbite which will hopefully silence the doubters. Sure, it could have ended worse. But he’s racing his bike and having a good time doing it and if that’s not things we love to see, then I don’t know what is (I have written at length about Roglič in my latest piece for TJVSupporters, if you care to read more of my thoughts on the matter).

The GC battle was completely shaken up quite apart from Roglič s attack and resulting spill, as the breakaway were so far up the road that two of their number overturned the time difference to move into virtual first and second spot in the overall classification. As it became clear that the peloton would not chase down the lead group, all that remained to be seen was who would be wearing red at the end of the day. The two contenders: Guillaume Martin of Cofidis, and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux’s Odd Christian Eiking. The latter had the advantage at the beginning of the day, and as the lead group closed in on the finish line, behind eventual stage winner Michael Storer, raising his arms for the second time in the space of a few days, the Frenchman could not move clear of the Norwegian. Eiking took control of the red jersey, and Intermarché, control of the race for the second time.

Stage 11 featured another instalment of ‘things we love to see’ with the most intense uphill finish since Strade Bianche. With a wall of a final climb similar visually to the Italian classic’s infamous Piazza del Campo, the sharply angled streets of Valdepeñas de Jaén played host to an epic final battle. The lone survivor from the day’s breakaway, stage 6 winner Magnus Cort, was denied a second victory as the peloton surged up and over the climb, Enric Mas and Primož Roglič stopping for a quick game of rock paper scissors to determine who would be the one to break the Dane’s heart. In the end, it was the whole GC bunch, as Cort gave in and wove up the climb like a drunk on his way home from the pub.

Stage 12 was a twitchy, crash-riddled charge through the sweltering landscape leading into Cordoba. The fight for breakaways was becoming more intense and the hectic, downhill battle set up the tone for the rest of the race, the ongoing tension resulting in crashes for Alpecin-Fenix’s Tobias Byer, who was later forced to abandon the race, and Adam Yates, along with a number of Jumbo Visma riders, who were caught out in a larger crash on a corner.

The temperature at the finish line was reportedly 41 degrees as a perky group of four used the day’s final climb to launch an attack. Giulio Ciccone, Jay Vine, Sergio Henao and Romain Bardet looked good for the win for a while but, ably assisted by the fire power of Bike Exchange’s leadout train, working for Michael Matthews, Magnus Cort and his leadout man Jens Keukelaire slingshotted to the front allowing the Dane to take his second stage win, the day after he was denied by the GC group in Jaen.

Extremadura? More like extremely flat…

Stage 13 was the longest stage of the race at 203km, and  long, hot trek through the alien landscapes of Extremadura, from barren wilderness to quaint Castillos, and the landscape was the only thing worth commenting on during a dull, sweaty day in the saddle for the riders, leading into the inevitable bunch sprint.

The sprint itself was by no means straightforward, despite the uncomplicated lead in to the final. It turned out to be a messy affair, with Deceuninck Quick-Step pushing the pace so high that their own sprinter, green jersey wearer Fabio Jakobsen, was not able to keep up. Instead, they towed Matteo Trentin to the line and almost gifted him the win, but for Florian Senechal who was too strong over the line and ensure that the Wolfpack didn’t lose everything after their mad dash for the line. There was some controversy following the stage as Jakobsen was heard criticising his lead-out man for dropping him, although he stated to the media that he’d given his team the go-ahead to sprint without him, as he didn’t have the legs. He retained the green jersey despite the mishap and will have his chances to go again in the third week.

Stage 14 continued the race’s journey through Extremadura, taking in some extreme climbing along the way. The days’ breakaway took some time to establish itself but once it did, was released without protest by the peloton. The ten-man strong group featured some new faces including Britain’s Matt Holmes and Tom Pidcock, They group were back together in time for the zig-zagging struggle up Alto Collado de Ballesteros, with its striated concrete and narrow hairpins, and as they ascended the probing attacks came and went as various riders tried their luck. Lotto Soudal’s Matt Holmes’ attack stuck, until he suffered a flat tyre, leaving AG2R’s Nicolas Prodhomme to try his luck solo.

The GC group made it up the climb without incident despite the knuckle-biting corners, and the race re-entered stalemate heading towards the final climb of the day, the breakaway being let out to over 14 minutes at one point.

The group pursuing Prodhomme now consisted of Jay Vine, recovered from a collision with a support vehicle in time to chase back on, Pidcock, and Bardet. Bardet kicked on the final climb though, passed straggler Andrey Zeits from BikeExchange, and reached for glory.

The banks to either side of the final climb spilled over with fans, a welcome sight as Bardet flowed up the climb, victory now assured, and took control of the mountains’ jersey in the process. A popular victory amongst the cycling community and one taken in style, with Bardet looking the best he’s been in some time; perhaps ever.

Stage 15 was a strange beast that seemed to reflect the general mood of the race so far. On paper it could have gone either way; a big day for the breakaway, or a day in which the GC came to life. Odd Christian Eiking still had the jersey and Intermarche, who had defended it admirably for the past five stages, would continue to do so.

The opening of the race turned out to be the most exciting part of the day. The breakaway, once again, took a long time to establish itself, with many attempts quoshed by the peloton as the group tore across the pancake-flat plains of Extremadura, stretched out and forming echelons at times, the intensity of the racing almost impossible to believe given the climate and the hard days that had gone before.

Eventually a break tore free from the clutches of the bunch and headed up the climb, including UAE’s Rafal Majka who stayed with the group for less than 40km before striking out alone. He would not be seen again for the rest of the day, and despite Steven Krijswijk’s best efforts to peg him back, the time gaps between the groups on the roads remained almost eerily static for the rest of the day. Adam Yates launched a late attack to dig 15 seconds out of his deficit on GC but other than that, it was a strangely lacklustre day.

Heading into the second rest day, Odd Christian Eiking retains the red jersey and Intermarche have now spent more time in control of the race than any other team. How long will they be able to hold on?

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writebikerepeat’s Vamos! Vuelta Victors

Do you love the title? I spent ages on it. Anyway, this section is dedicated to recognising outstanding contributions to the cause of our entertainment during the three long weeks that make up a grand tour.

BEST NAME: Odd Christian Eiking

This one is pretty obvious. When your name sounds like an activity you might take part in on a Norwegian stag do, AND it rhymes with Viking, you can’t go wrong. The End.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD: Romain Bardet

Like Kenny Ellissonde in week 1, everyone loves Romain Bardet. His victory on stage 14, believe it or not, his first World Tour victory NOT to take place on French soil, was universally met with joy and as he took ownership of the blue polka dot jersey it led me to wonder – are climbers just easier to love?

COMBATIVITY (THE REAL WINNER): Jay Vine

After working in the break all day on stage 14, his collision with a support vehicle and resulting fight to get back into the break, and his eventual podium place on the stage, it was laughable that the day’s combativity award went to Burgos’ Daniel Navarro. He too crashed, taking out Sep Vanmarke in the process, and finished down in 12th place – er, what were they thinking? I’m here for Jay all day; the Aussie has impressed in his first grand tour and I don’t think he’s done yet. Expect more Vine-shaped fireworks in week 3.

The ‘I’M NOT ANGRY, I’M JUST DISAPPOINTED’ award for failing to live up to the hype – jointly awarded to Michael Matthews and Mikel Landa

Sorry Bling, but you’ve had your chances. I was willing to wait, I was bearing with you. I had you in my VeloGames team, for goodness sake. The green jersey was yours. Except it wasn’t. The last straw was the failed chase in stage 12 that brought back the breakaway group of favourites, and didn’t even result in a win. Expecting better from you in week 3, young man.

As for Landismo, he’s had a fairly woeful season on the whole. His GC credentials remain unproven and his claim over the leadership of Bahrain Victorious was in doubt even before the first rest day. Just as Damiano Caruso did at the Giro, though, Jack Haig has ascended through the team’s ranks to take control and he looks the equal of the top GC men. It will be fascinating to see how he goes in week 3.

THE WHACK-A-MOLE ‘Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ AWARD – Magnus Cort

Serial breakaway-botherer, EF’s Magnus Cort has been incorrigible at this year’s Vuelta. In addition to his two stage wins, he almost got another on stage 11, thwarted at the last by a rampant GC bunch, and has been relentlessly on the attack in many an escape group. To say he was on good form would be an understatement. Don’t write off his chances at another win or two in the final week.

THE ALPECIN-FENIX AWARD for team punching most above its weight – Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux

Between Rein Taaramäe in week 1 and Odd Christian Eiking in week 2, the Belgian team have had control of the race lead for over 50% of the grand tour so far, and it’s testament to their work ethic that they have retained the jersey for so long. Can they carry it all the way to the final stage?

COOL POINTS – awarded jointly to Enric Mas and Primož Roglič for their casual, mid-wall eyeballing session on stage 11, where they appeared to size each other up, work out a plan, then attack, all up a 30% gradient. Then an extended post-race handshake/back pat sequence followed and yes, they are now the official Bosses of the Race.

’HOLY CRAP’ MOMENT OF THE WEEK – The peloton pours up the hill like the zombies in World War Z towards the hapless Magnus Cort (cue Jaws theme)

The peloton surge over the final climb on stage 11, led by Jumbo Visma’s Sepp Kuss

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