Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by ASO/GOMEZSPORT/SWpix.com
It shouldn’t be a surprise really that Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic are the the most highly-prized riders in cycling’s marketplace. That’s because when it comes to Grand Tour racing, they both offer reliability, consistency, and a degree of certainty, where rival team leaders do not.
As the 2021 Vuelta a Espana reaches it’s first rest day, Roglic — perhaps predictably — leads the race and is on course to complete a hat-trick of wins in the Spanish national tour. Now only one rider, 26 year old Enric Mas, is within a minute of him in the overall standings, after the gruelling and barren climb through the hairpins to Alto de Velefique.
Yes, four riders are still within two minutes of the leader’s jersey, it’s only the first rest day and we know too that Roglic has shown a propensity to stumble at the last fence. It may well happen again, but at least on this occasion there is no Pogacar presence to fuel another volcanic turnaround in the race’s final time trial.
Stage nine’s summit finish brought a close to act one of this year’s Vuelta, in which Roglic has seemed more unflappable, constant and tactically astute than ever before. On the 188 kilometre stage through Andalucia, he played his cards perfectly, following the tentative moves, studying the wheels, until he went with the one acceleration that definitively opened up meaningful gaps, that of Mas.
To these eyes, it was one of Roglic’s most assured Grand Tour performances to date.
As Jumbo-Visma’s leader and the Movistar rider moved clear, those who had flattered to deceive — Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz, Mikel Landa, Felix Grosschartner, Alexandr Vlasov and others — were left behind, strewn across the final hairpins, riding home in ones and twos, after Roglic and Mas moved into the territory where their race looked likely to become a duel through the mountains, all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Mas, second overall in the 2018 Vuelta and backed by Miguel Angel Lopez, looks to have the best tactical hand to play in order to complicate life for Roglic in the remaining mountain stages. His Colombian stable mate is less than a minute behind him in the overall standings and, from what we have seen so far, is in podium form. But this is Movistar of course, past experts at shooting themselves in the foot, even when victory may have been within their grasp.
Nonetheless, Mas’s riding so far has been spectacular and, in terms of consistency, he has rivalled Roglic as the best climber in the mountain finishes to date. His time trialling however, is a different issue and the 18 seconds lost to Roglic in the opening seven kilometre time trial does not extrapolate well over the near 34 kilometres of the Vuelta’s final race of truth. If Mas is to overthrow Roglic and snatch the overall lead, he and Lopez will have to combine well to achieve that in the mountains.
Roglic meanwhile may just have to stay upright.
“We have to stay in one piece,” Roglic said rather tellingly, after the finish of a stage in which Damiano Caruso followed in the wheel tracks of Mark Padun, Dylan Teuns, and Matej Mohoric, and successfully completed another of Bahrain-Victorious’s now-signature remarkable lone raids. Ironically, it was in similar style to Caruso’s win in the final mountain stage of the Giro d’Italia, ahead of Bernal, the Italian race’s overall winner.
The Giro champion was over two minutes behind Caruso at Alto de Velefique though.
Ironically that same quality, of reliability and predictability, that Roglic now has in spades and that once made Ineos Grenadiers, as Team Sky, so fearsome has long since gone. In truth, it probably went on the day in June 2019 that Chris Froome crashed into a wall in the Loire. Since then the British team has waxed and waned, just like Bernal’s form, once also seen as rock-solid, consistent and reliable.
As at the Tour, Ineos Grenadiers started the Vuelta with a multi-leader challenge for victory, based around Bernal, Carapaz and Yates. Sounds good on paper, right? But as at the Tour, it looks unlikely to work out. Yates is now the man most likely to mount a surge for the podium and even then it’s hard to see him challenging for the win. Mystery meanwhile surrounds Bernal’s long-term future.
A bout of Covid-19 before the race maybe have blunted his form and his back issues may still be hampering him, but unlike Roglic and Pogacar, it’s no longer clear which Bernal is taking to the start line. Carapaz meanwhile looks willing, but also tired. Perhaps after the Tour de France and the Olympic Games, the Vuelta has been a race too far for the Ecuadorian.