Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Almost everyone expects Primoz Roglic to seal a hat-trick of Vuelta victories in Santiago de Compostela next weekend, but with three summit finishes still to come, and heat and fatigue wearing down the peloton, is that taking too much for granted?
As the Vuelta a Espana pauses for its second rest day in Santander, Roglic remains the man most likely to emerge from the cluster of contenders to claim his third consecutive overall victory. But in what has been at times an unpredictable race, you wouldn’t necessarily bank on it.
Some of his rivals, such as Jack Haig of Bahrain Victorious, suspect that he may be ‘fading,’ to use the Australian’s choice phrase. There seemed to be little sign of that in Sunday’s 15th stage, won by Rafal Majka, of UAE Emirates, which only really flickered into life as Adam Yates, of Ineos Grenadiers, suggested he may yet have a say in the final outcome, with an impressive acceleration in the closing kilometres.
Even if Roglic’s form is, as Haig seemed to suggest, on the wane, his rivals need to exploit any weakness and get on the attack soon. There are three summit finishes still to come, but a long final time trial in Santiago de Compostela that favours the Slovenian, on the final day. If they don’t make their moves, then they may run out of time.
Outwardly, Sunday’s stage to El Barraco looked rather forgettable, almost inconsequential, but looks can deceiving. The grind continued and the wearing down of morale, and of resilience, was evident, if you looked close enough. If the defending champion, who crashed twice last week, is vulnerable, the final days of the Vuelta could be explosive.
In Europe’s Grand Tours, riders can run the gamut of form and of emotions. They can pass from flying to creeping, affected by crashes, fatigue, climate, and illness. Roglic, seemingly flawless in the first week, has hit the deck twice. His team’s tactics are maybe not quite as pin-sharp as they were in week one.
The temperatures during this Vuelta have been infernal and the race itself, gruelling. It has taken its toll on the peloton, with an “empty” Olympic champion Richard Carapaz, so strong both in the Tour de France and in the Olympic Games, among those to quit. But how much has it all drained Roglic?
Carapaz’s team mate, Egan Bernal, has at times appeared to struggle, and even close to losing contact, but to date, has clung on. “I asked myself how we could have that kind of pace on such tough terrain,” the Giro d’Italia champion told the media after Sunday’s stage. “Riders are racing at a very high level here.”
Whatever the final week holds, Roglic’s rivals now need to take the initiative, and test him, if they can.
Depleted though their team may be, can Yates and Bernal mount a telling challenge either at Lagos de Covadonga on Wednesday or Alto d’El Gamoniteiru on Thursday? Or will they be forced to wait and follow the inevitable moves from Movistar duo Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez?
And when those attacks do come, who can Roglic rely on? Usually Sepp Kuss, at the death of course, but after Steven Kruiswijk spent most of stage 15 engaged in a pointless lone pursuit of Majka, will he have the reserves to support the Slovenian? Will the Dutchman regret his solo sojourn chasing the Pole?
And are we getting ahead of ourselves anyway? Doesn’t the man taking the red jersey into the second rest day deserve a little more respect?
It’s reasonable to expect that current race leader, Odd Christian Eiking (pictured), riding for the new super-team Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux, will hang onto the overall lead until Wednesday, at least, and even then, his team mates have shown just how committed they are to his cause.
His was the most impressive performance of the Vuelta’s second week and is in the grand tradition of underdogs who have clung onto leader’s jerseys, tenaciously frustrating the big guns — stand up Tommy Voeckler —until almost the very last.
But come on: get real, I hear you say. With a long time trial on the final day, nobody really expects anything other than a Roglic win surely? And don’t mention La Planche des Belles Filles because lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Anything other than that would be — well — just plain Odd.