Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
After the wacky, makeshift calendar of 2020, the Vuelta a Espana is back in its rightful slot, just as the European summer begins to slide into autumn and the furnace heat of July and August ebbs into the mellower temperatures of September.
The Vuelta may be the last of the Grand Tour summer wines, but that hasn’t stopped it from being a fine vintage in recent years and there have been some memorable dogfights too — Chris Froome vs Alberto Contador, Froome vs Nairo Quintana, and last year’s scrap, of course, between Primoz Roglic and Richard Carapaz.
You’d expect those two, gold medallists in the Tokyo Olympics, to be the kingpins in this year’s race but the early signs are that maybe that won’t be the scenario. While Roglic, fresher after abandoning the Tour, looked masterful in the opening time trial, Carapaz has struggled and as the Spanish race heads towards a long weekend that features two critical summit finishes, the first on Friday and the next on Sunday, the former Giro d’Italia champion needs to find his legs.
Of course, his Ineos Grenadiers team can turn to both Egan Bernal and Adam Yates, while Movistar are boasting a determined Enrico Mas and Alejandro Valverde, and Hugh Carthy is vowing, after a shaky start, to also make his mark on the race. None of that obscures the fact however, that the best stage race rider currently racing — Tadej Pogacar — is watching on TV, rather than from the front ranks of the peloton.
Pogacar is now said to be the highest-paid rider in the sport but his absence may in fact be the Vuelta’s gain. He was so dominant in the Tour de France that the race was effectively over after a week, after the finish of stage eight. Yes, of course you can argue that crashes, the weather, injuries, and so on, played into that, but does anybody really think that the final outcome in Paris would have been very different?
Whatever, the Tour’s final two weeks lacked suspense and tension. You already get the feeling, after a first week peppered with incidents and unexpected changes in overall leadership, that the 2021 Vuelta may be different. First Roglic, then Rein Taaramae and now Kenny Elissonde (pictured) have pulled on the race leader’s jersey. Who’s next?
The Spanish race may benefit from the absence of back-to-back Tour winner Pogacar in several ways: first, the fact that his no-show may favour a much more open, hard-to-predict and volatile battle for overall victory; second, the knowledge that defending champion and pre-race favourite Roglic may be on track to achieve a hat-trick, but has also shown fragility in the past, when on the cusp of victory (evidenced by the 2020 Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de France and the 2021 Paris-Nice); third, the likelihood that, for some team leaders, with UAE Emirates now joining the ranks of the super-teams and Pogacar contracted until 2027, this Vuelta may be their final shot at a Grand Tour podium for quite some time.
Part of the interest in the rest of the Vuelta will come in discovering how well-equipped riders like Mas, Miguel Angel Lopez (both of Movistar), new race leader Kenny Elissonde and Trek-Segafredo teammate, Giulio Ciccone, and perhaps more than most, Mikel Landa, of Bahrain Victorious, are to shape the outcome of the race and compete for a podium finish. With the sport’s top rider not in the picture, for many of them this could be a Carpe Diem moment.
In the face of the jostling for position, how will Bernal, Yates and a seemingly fatigued Carapaz, already 1-40 behind Roglic, cope? As the Tour de France ended, Ineos Grenadiers team boss Dave Brailsford pointed to the Vuelta as another opportunity for his riders, after what by their standards, was an underwhelming performance in the sport’s biggest race.
“This is our 34th Grand Tour and we’ve won 12,” Brailsford said defiantly as the convoy headed to Paris, which makes the 2021 Vuelta their 35th. Many however, will also now be wondering if, as Pogacar ascends to the summit of cycling, his team’s years of Grand Tour dominance are over. With the Slovenian absent, this race will be a further acid test of Bernal, Yates and Carapaz’s capabilities.
There’s a final factor that favours an open and unpredictable race: that’s the ability of the most low-key of the Grand Tours to take the peloton to off-the-beaten track locations.
In truth, Spain is so rural that much of the country qualifies as ‘off-the-beaten-track,’ but the size of the race infrastructure and caravan, the limited media presence, the enthused but small crowds, allied to the all-pervasive, laid-back vibe, makes the inclusion of wild climbs as daunting as the Altu d’el Gamoniteiru, in the Asturias region, possible.
Hopefully, suspense will be guaranteed until the race arrives at the final time trial. For now though, we can look forward to further twists in the narrative in Friday’s stage to the Balcon de Alicante — which will be a fan-free zone due to the risk of forest fires — and Sunday’s trawl through the hairpins to the Alto de Velefique, a further summit finish prior to Monday’s first rest day.