The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the Vuelta’s opening days

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by ASO/GOMEZSPORT

The good, the bad and the ugly has become a cliché as a review of sporting contests. For once, though, this analysis is entirely appropriate, as the third stage of the Vuelta a España got under way in Santo Domingo de Silos, the picturesque monastery village that lies just a handful of kilometres away from Sad Hill Cemetery, the setting for the final scene in Sergio Leone’s iconic Spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (the Ugly).

I prepared for the stage that finished atop the Picón Blanco by watching Sad Hill Unearthed, the 2017 Netflix documentary that shows how three local men, all huge fans of the movie, decided to dig out and restore the cemetery that was built for the movie in 1966 with the help of Spanish army conscripts doing their then-obligatory military service. The restoration, which was effectively an archaeological dig, proved an enormous task, filling their weekends and those of dozens of volunteers for two years, and makes for a fascinating and, ultimately, very moving watch. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend you search it out.

Turning to the Vuelta, there’s been plenty of Good in the opening three days. Travelling back from holiday in Portugal, I was lucky enough to catch the first stage time trial in Burgos, where Primož Roglič quickly got reacquainted with the leader’s red jersey that he’s won in the last two years. Riding a gold bike time trial bike for the first time since his Olympic victory in Tokyo, the Jumbo-Visma leader was as impressive as the setting for the test’s start and finish next to Burgos’s magnificent cathedral.

I was equally impressed by the spectator turn-out. The TT took place on the final day of a short but very intense heatwave during which Spain recorded its highest ever temperature (more than 48°C!). Although it was “cooler” in Burgos, it was still close to 40 when the first rider got under way just before six in the evening and I half-expected this furnace-like heat to deter many fans from watching, but I was absolutely wrong. The sections in the heart of the city, and especially on the short, winding rise to the castle above the cathedral were packed, and the atmosphere was terrific.

As each rider powered up the climb, their faces a study in sporting focus behind their tinted visors, they were accompanied by a wave of noise, fans banging on the barriers and banners, the sound level rising for each rider from the local Burgos-BH team, for Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde and for all of the favourites. It reached a crescendo when Roglič jetted past. According to my wife and kids, it was the best cycling spectacle they’d ever seen, and they’ve been to plenty!

As each rider powered up the climb, their faces a study in sporting focus behind their tinted visors, they were accompanied by a wave of noise, fans banging on the barriers and banners… according to my wife and kids, it was the best cycling spectacle they’d ever seen, and they’ve been to plenty!

Also in the Good category was Jasper Philipsen’s victory on the second stage into Gamonal, on the eastern side of Burgos’s city centre. I won’t deny that I was hoping that Fabio Jakobsen would mark his return to Grand Tour racing after his horrific crash at last year’s Tour of Poland with the win, but Alpecin-Fenix’s Philipsen had a run of near-misses at the Tour de France, finishing second three times, and the young Belgian’s first success at this level was certainly due.

Good understates the quality of Rein Taaramäe’s victory on the Picón Blanco at the end of stage three that also put him the red jersey. As the Estonian accelerated away from his breakaway companions on the acutely steep ramps up to the finish, my mind went back to the 2009 stage to Xorret del Catí, when Taaramäe was in a similar position on an equally brutal ascent and suffered a heart-breaking defeat, almost grinding to a halt as the climb got the better of him.

On this occasion, though, he judged his effort perfectly, winning his third Grand Tour stage after previous successes at the 2011 Vuelta and 2016 Giro d’Italia. Following Taco van der Hoorn’s success on the third stage of this year’s Giro, Taaramäe’s victory was a good reward too for the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert team that’s making its Vuelta debut.

The GC battle on the Picón Blanco fell somewhere between Good and Bad. It was decent, with attacks hampered by the strong headwind blowing down the climb. While Ineos Grenadier Adam Yates looked strong, the team that came out of it best were Movistar, who saw their tridente of leaders all in the forefront in the final kilometre, Valverde setting up Enric Mas for a late attack, with Miguel Ángel López right in the picture too. Also very good was Bahrain Victorious’s Mark Padun, who led the bunch most of the way up the climb and was still prominent in the closing moments.

Turning to Bad, the red jersey hopes of some of the pre-race favourites have already taken a knock. EF Education-Nippo’s Hugh Carthy, third overall last year, has ceded 90 seconds to defending champion Roglič. Ineos’s Richard Carapaz, second last year, has lost almost two minutes. Jumbo’s Sepp Kuss and Steven Kruiswijk were also among the strugglers on the Picón Blanco, which left Roglič isolated. We’ve seen this before, and then Jumbo come strong when they need to, but their rival “superteams” will have taken note.

And the Ugly? There’s not been much so far. Compared to the Tour’s chaotic opening days in Brittany, the Vuelta has barely seen any crashes, with just two riders leaving the race so far. The nearest we’ve come to a truly ugly moment was when a dog ran into the road just as Team DSM’s Alberto Dainese was finishing his time trial. Ugliness was averted, though, as the Italian managed to swerve around it, while the team car following at 60kph not far behind him demonstrated the excellence of its brakes by pulling up just short of the terrified hound.

So, three days in, lots of Good and not much that’s been Bad or Ugly. Let’s hope the Vuelta continues that way.

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