Following the mad rush of last season’s grand tours, this season has felt like a return to something resembling normality. It’s been a long summer though, and now it’s late, and we’ve all had a bit too much to drink, and people are being silly and making up poems. No-one has time to read a whole review when they’re in this state, so have this instead. Some lists, some face-offs, and – yes, you heard me – a poem. What more could you possibly desire? May I present to you: my La Vuelta a Espana Big Bag of Thoughts.
Top 5 Surprise Packages
You know the ones. The ones who don’t jump out at you from the startlist. The names you might overlook. The names you may not even have heard of. There’s always one, who takes you by surprise, but from this Vuelta, I bring you FIVE.
- Magnus Cort – the devastating Dane came and conquered La Vuelta. With three stage wins, a could-have-been-a-stage win up the wall of Valdepeñas de Jaén and a second place on the final time trial, Cort was the Wout van Aert of the Vuelta, winning in the hills and in a sprint and doing it in style. Never underestimate a Dane.
- Michael Storer – the baby-faced assassin, the Destroyer, Storer the Explorer – the Australian has as many nicknames as he has victories, taking two stage wins and the King of the Mountains jersey for his troubles. An exceptional breakout performance for the young DSM rider.
- Louis Meintjes – the South African seems to have been on the scene for an age and has had his moments on the fringes of GC battles, but at this Vuelta he had a resurgence and reminded the cycling world of his talent, prior to his nasty crash on stage 20.
- Odd Christian Eiking – the Norwegian rider on the Belgian team, in their first year with World Tour status, ensured that their fantastic season continued by claiming the red jersey on stage 10 and retaining it for the next six stages. True Viking spirit (see poem, below)
- Jay Vine – the breakthrough Aussie rider for Alpecin-Fenix showed grit and determination to underscore his potential, spending time in several breakaways and showing willingness to attack despite the odd mishap. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can produce in the future.
Top 5 (actually, just 2) Disappointments
From Mikel Landa’s lack of form and strange exit from the race after a bizarre attack on stage 17, to the promise of Bahrain’s Mark Padun who had stunned in the Dauphine yet failed to live up to billing at the Vuelta, there were a few riders who fell short of expectations this Vuelta. Michael Matthews produced the sum total of nothing despite his team’s sporadic forays into the action; Arnaud Demare continued to hopelessly seek the form he had found in 2020 but which has since eluded him; and Richard Carapaz and Tom Pidcock’s Olympic exertions proved too much for them to be fully competitive in the race.
Yet, to criticise riders for a lack of form doesn’t sit right with me. In an incredibly demanding and punishing sport there are many reasons why a rider may not hit the heights they – or their team, or the fans – set for themselves, and to pick them apart feels unsporting.
Instead, I will focus on the two things out of our control that let us down.
- Lack of crosswinds – the word ‘echelons’ became an incantation, a curse, a secret word oft repeated and then quickly hushed on social media, as the usually prevalent Spanish crosswinds were repeatedly promised, yet repeatedly failed to make an appearance. In an opening week where a little more action would have been welcome, the absence of the aforementioned weather condition left the whole thing feeling a little bit flat. The hallowed event did occur once or twice, but they were so brief that it begged the question: if echelons transpire and cycling fans posting on social media aren’t around to see them, have they even happened?
- The Coverage – after a Giro and Tour de France’s worth of wall-to-wall coverage, it was deeply disappointing to discover that the coverage of La Vuelta did not include the crucial early parts of the racing. There’s something special about watching from kilometre zero; on days when the parcours is relatively flat or a bunch sprint is almost inevitable, the scrap to establish the breakaway is often the hardest fought racing of the day, outside of the last 10km or so, and to miss all the excitement just wasn’t fair
Top 5 Memorable Moments
- Storer and Sivakov bicker up a big hill – there’s nothing better than some mid-race beef, and it didn’t get better than stage 7, when Michael Storer pounced on Pavel Sivakov’s mechanical failure and sprung an attack in a race where the two of them were leading from the original breakaway. The Russian didn’t take kindly to what might have been perceived as unsporting, and he let Storer know his feelings in no uncertain terms. Cycling fans broke out the popcorn, and enjoyed the show.
- The WALL – I’ve discussed stage 11’s epic surge of the peloton in pursuit of Magnus Cort up the Valdepeñas de Jaén in my second rest day piece. It was a feast for the eyes, and that is that.
- Gamoniteiru – the ever-increasing brutality of ‘Angliru’s evil little sister’ was a spectacle to rival some of the most iconic climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees. With mists clouding the view, the atmosphere was tense as the GC contenders battled up the steadily increasing gradients and it was one for the purists, with Columbian Miguel Angel Lopez emerging from the mist to take an emphatic win
- Jay Vine crashes, podiums anyway – I’ve written about Jay’s heroics on stage 14 in the aforementioned second rest day piece, but I’m full of admiration for the young Aussie and will be watching his progress closely next season
- Superman Lopez disappears – just when you think cycling can’t get any weirder, one of the main contenders for the overall race win drops out of the race, mid-stage. Movistar’s Miguel Angel Lopez was dropped on stage 20 by a select group including his team mate, Enric Mas, and he either couldn’t bridge the gap, or was told not to (reports vary), and the time between them stretched out, his podium spot evaporating in the process. It wasn’t ideal for the Columbian rider, who had taken a dramatic victory just two days prior on the fearsome Gamoniteiru, and he made his feelings known in no uncertain terms by stepping off the stage. There was some confusion as to his whereabouts, and as to the reasoning behind his decision, but he later apologised and speculation about his mental health abounded. Here’s hoping he’s OK – the pressure of elite level sport, particularly an endurance sport like cycling, cannot be underestimated, and we all make mistakes. Moving on…
What better way to remember a grand tour by, than to pit the stars of the race against one another. Which contenders will land the killer blows? (Spoiler alert: it’s me).
Jack Haig v Enric Mas
For the second time in the space of two grand tours, Bahrain-Victorious were forced to go with Plan B as leader Mikel Landa was not on form. Haig rose to the challenge in style, a natural leader and strong rider, the Aussie is one for the future.
With Movistar’s team tactics the subject of ridicule on cycling social media, it’s often easy to overlook the fact that there are talented riders within their ranks missing out on their chances as a result of poor organisation. Mas is the rising star of the Spanish team but having arguably underperformed in recent seasons, his strength in this Vuelta was a pleasant surprise and if they have any sense, Movistar will build the team around developing Mas’ GC chances in seasons to come.
WINNER: Jack Haig. Marshalling his troops like a seasoned campaigner, Haig has really shown he has what it takes to mix it with the big guns
Team DSM v Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux
Sure, Jumbo Visma won the day, and Bahrain were exceptional, but the two teams who really stood out in terms of unexpected performances were DSM and Intermarché. Team DSM were quiet in the first week but from stage 7 onwards they charged into battle with rampant abandon, grabbing three stage wins along with the top two spots in the mountains jersey competition. Romain Bardet is looking better than ever and Michael Storer is one to watch, although we will be doing so at Groupama-FDJ, where he has signed for the 2022 season.
I’ve waxed lyrical in other places about Intermarché, but you’ve got to hand it to them, they really brought their A game to Spain. They didn’t have a bad Giro, with a stage win for Taco van der Hoorn, but were quiet at the Tour, so it was great to see them fighting both in the breakaways and even for the GC with Eiking, Taaramäe and Meintjes all having great races.
WINNER: Tricky one this one, but for a team of their status to spend 9 days in possession of the leader’s jersey, and to do so with such assured confidence, it has to be Intermarché
Sepp Kuss v Gino Mäder
Kuss has developed his unique role as last man standing in the mountains for Primož Roglič in recent seasons, and no-one does it quite like him. With his tongue hanging out and bouncy climbing style, the American can stay with the best of them up the big climbs, and this Vuelta has been no different, as he’s been there for the Slovenian all the way. This was no more evident than on the climb to Lagos de Covadonga on stage 17, when he assisted Roglič to a brilliant stage win, then sharing a grin as they crossed one another as Rog made his way back down the mountain.
Gino Mäder has undoubtedly had a breakout season. His talent is undeniable and in support of Jack Haig, he came into his own, quickly maturing into a selfless and devoted support rider yet securing the young rider’s jersey and 5th place on GC in the process.
WINNER: This one was almost impossible to call. Both riders had exceptional races in support of their leader, but I’m giving the win to Sepp Kuss, purely for the fact that his sacrifice was so apparent in the final stages of the mountains. In the final day’s time trial he trailed in over five minutes down, proof if it were needed that he’d left everything on the punishing Spanish mountains for his team leader.
NO RISK, NO GLORY
Primož Roglič v Egan Bernal
The two titans spent the third week battling one another for supremacy in the mountains, and it was a thrilling battle. The new catchphrase, fresh from the lips of the Slovenian after his ill-fated attack on stage 10 which ended in him crashing down a dusty descent, seemed to encapsulate his whole racing style as he sought to find gaps on his rivals.
In the final week, Bernal finally hit top form once again, and he took up the mantle of risk-taker, hitting out on stage 17 in a long-range attack that only Roglič himself was able to match, eventually coming through to take the stage victory.
WINNER: Despite the attacking spirit he showed in the final week, this one has to go to the King himself, Primož Roglič, who demonstrated the true nature of bike racing, going after every move, launching some of his own, and giving his fans more stressful moments as he almost took a wrong turning during the final time trial. It’s a rollercoaster ride where Primož is concerned and he did coin the phrase, after all.
Jasper Phillipsen v Fabio Jakobsen
The first week offered a number of opportunities for the sprinters, and there were a few names in the mix for the honours. Two rose to the top however and over the course of four stages, they shared the spoils equally with two wins apiece, and establishing a true head-to-head battle for the green jersey.
Each rider had his own story to tell, and those stories have been covered in other cycling media, particularly Jakobsen’s incredible return from the horrific injuries he suffered at the Tour of Poland in 2020. But it was hard not to be happy for Phillipsen, who was the bridesmaid at the Tour de France, picking up a remarkable three second and three third-place finishes from six opportunities. The sight of him, champagne glass in hand, tears rolling down his cheeks as he slumped in defeat at the end of the Champs Élysées, captured the hearts of many cycling fans, and it was wonderful to see him finally claim the victories he was so capable of earning, before he stepped off the race after stage 10 due to illness.
WINNER: Fabio Jakobsen took the green jersey from his rival on stage 8 and didn’t give it up, taking it all the way through the mountains and picking up another win on the way. This one has to go to the Dutchman.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
There were a number of fallers from the race; equal to the Giro at 40 and fewer than the Tour’s 43 this year. While it’s sad that any rider cannot complete a race, there were some significant losses in particular to the GC battle and to some of our favourites. Here are three of the fallers, remembered:
Hugh Carthy was high on the list of favourites for this race, particularly in light of his brilliant performance at the race in 2020. He dropped off the pace in the first week though and when he announced his withdrawal due to illness on stage 7, it was a big loss to the GC battle.
Alejandro Valverde never fails to light up a race, and on his home turf, spearheading his Spanish team, a stage win or two, or perhaps a top 10 on GC, could never be ruled out for the veteran. Fate had other ideas though, and when he hit a pothole and careened over the side of a steep hill during stage 7, anxious fans feared for more than just his chances in the race. The cycling gods were watching though, and miraculously, he wasn’t badly hurt. However when shots of him crying emerged shortly after fans and pundits alike were led to speculate whether this would be the end of an era. Not so, though, as the irascible Spaniard confirmed in an interview just over a week later he would ride on into 2022.
Giulio Ciccone has impressed this season with his climbing and has been a contender for GC in both the Giro and the Vuelta. His character both on and off the bike has earned him many new fans and with a couple of forays into breaks, it was clear Ciccone was feeling good going into the final week, and the big mountains where he would expect to shine. It was a huge loss to the race when he crashed on stage 16, denying us the chance to see him fly.
And now for something completely different…
Your name is Odd
But that’s OK
For you fought with valour
And were a bit better
Than Guillaume Martin
You wore red with honour
Like the blood
Of your Viking ancestors
Or the Cofidis breakfast buffet*
Humble yet determined
Your team defending
With honour and courage
And fluorescent elbows
The spirit of battle
Lives on as you surrender the prize
To your Slovenian adversary
The future is bright
And hopefully, more than a little
The Final Curtain
And so, the red curtain falls on grand tour season as the Vuelta draws to a close, crowning a fantastic champion in Primož Roglič with a traditional Galician hat. The Slovenian secures his third victory in as many seasons, a hat-trick written in stone after an incredible fourth stage victory on the final day’s time trial, and once again the cycling world hopes to see the top GC riders face off against one another, in the season to come.
There are a few more significant races left on the 2021 calendar before the riders hang up their helmets for a well-deserved off-season break, but fear not! writebikerepeat will be here, covering the Tour of Britain, all the rest of the major one day races and the cyclocross season, along with plenty more features along the way. SUBSCRIBE to keep up to date with the latest news, below.