The Venn diagram that will decide the Vuelta

by William Fotheringham

Words by William Fotheringham | Photos by ASO/GOMEZSPORT

Earlier this year, the British magazine procycling discussed the idea that time trials might have little future in stage racing, given the constant reduction in their length and significance over recent seasons. This brief, condensed mid-Covid season has thrown up a very simple answer to the question: yes, clearly time trials have a future, but they have to finish up a brutal hill. Not only is the physical demand given an extra edge, but there is the added spice of the need for riders to switch from TT to road bike at the foot of the final climb. 

At the Vuelta today it was redemption time for Primoz Roglic, who took game and set, if not match, at least not quite yet. This was the mirror image of Roglic’s disastrous climb up La Planche des Belles Filles in the Tour de France. To start with it was a perfectly paced ride, as he held the surprising Hugh Carthy (pictured) to begin with, then opened a gap approaching the final climb before pulling away on what should have been Carthy’s favored terrain.

The bike change went perfectly – indeed his Jumbo-Visma mechanic should get an award for assist of the season after he slung Roglic up the climb like a hammer thrower at the Highland Games – and Roglic flew up the climb to Mirador de Ezaro like a man who is making the bike do what he wants it to rather than one who is struggling to make the damn thing respond. He regained the red jersey from Richard Carapaz, and his aero hat sat just right on his head. 

There had to be an unlucky victim, a fall guy, and for Roglic at La Planche read Will Barta; for the 24-year-old from Boise, Idaho, to lose a first pro victory by a mere second at the last was cruel indeed. And if you wanted another victim, look no further than Enric Mas; apart from Marc Soler’s stage win on day two this Vuelta has turned into an unmitigated disaster for Movistar. Fifth overall for Mas, and eighth for Alejandro Valverde is nowhere near what’s expected of Spain’s premier team when relative outsiders like Carthy and Dan Martin are flying so high.

It was a very un-Vuelta time trial. The scenery in this extreme north-western corner of Spain has that “next parish America” feel of the west of Ireland or Wales or Scotland, another world altogether from the bleak desertlike scenery of much of inland Spain. The crystal clarity of the air was worthy of Norway, and the roads, devoid of traffic or spectators in the soft autumn light, had the feel of an early Sunday morning English time trial. 

The crystal clarity of the air was worthy of Norway, and the roads, devoid of traffic or spectators in the soft autumn light, had the feel of an early Sunday morning English time trial. 

The Roglic-Carapaz Vuelta is developing into something that feels reminiscent of the LeMond-Fignon Tour de France of 1989; this was the fourth time the pair had swapped the lead (by the final stage of the 1989 Tour, LeMond and Fignon had exchanged the yellow jersey three times) and today Roglic took the lead over 30sec for the first time. It has been nip and tuck writ large, and who would want to predict what twists and turns may come next. 

With 39sec on Carapaz, in theory Roglic has done the hard graft, and it’s now just a matter of defensive riding, helped by a Jumbo-Visma team that is visibly stronger than the opposition. But that was what Roglic – and everyone else apart from Tadej Pogacar – thought at the Tour de France. That’s what Laurent Fignon figured at the 89 Tour, of course.

On paper, Jumbo-Visma are stronger than Carthy, Martin and Carapaz’s teams put together; Jonas Vingegard has ridden out of his skin, meaning that Sep Kuss has largely been kept in reserve. In theory, this in depth support should be Roglic’s strongest suit. Michael Woods has ridden manfully to support his British team mate Carthy since his early crash, but Martin is getting no help when the road climbs, and Carapaz can only look to Andrey Amador; although Chris Froome’s form is improving, it is unlikely to get better fast enough for him to be able to burn off the entire yellow and black train. 

With just 47sec spanning Roglic, Carapaz and Carthy, and Dan Martin still lurking at only 1min 42sec, there can be no room for complacency. On paper, the three stages to get through before the final showdown at La Covatilla are relatively straightforward by the standards of the Vuelta, but the incident that struck Roglic on the Como stage at the Giro in 2019 – a bike change followed by a crash – shows how misfortune can strike anywhere. Think of a Venn diagram, with Roglic’s form as one circle, Carthy, Carapaz and Martin’s desire to gamble for a win (as opposed to being happy with what they’ve got) as a second, and random chance as the third circle. If the three circles intersect at any point in the next four days, it’s game on.

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