Fascinating battle between the breakaway and the GC leaders
Stage six of the Vuelta a España 2021 looked like a fairly straightforward day of racing with a mostly flat 156km of racing before the road ramped up into a steep 1.9km-long climb to the finish.
But as the crosswinds blew and the race hit the final climb, we saw a truly epic chase between the breakaway and the bunch.
The days’ escape contained just five riders, the most accomplished of which was Magnus Cort from EF Education-Nippo.
As the race hit the final climb, the stage win hung in the balance with Ineos Grenadiers and Movistar tearing up the breakaway’s advantage.
Into the final kilometres and Cort found himself as the sole leader as the general classification contenders began to surge behind him, with Primož Roglič firing a signature late attack that threatened to break the heart of the Dane.
But Cort battled so hard to the line and only just held of Jumbo-Visma’s star rider to take his fourth-career Vuelta stage.
Primož Roglič is back at the top of the standings
After just three days out of the race lead, Primož Roglič is back in his usual spot wearing the red jersey after the stiff uphill finish on stage six.
At the start of the day, it looked entirely possible that Roglič could move into the race lead, as just five seconds separated him from former race leader Kenny Elissonde, which is no time at all on a sharp climb like the Alto de la Montaña de Cullera.
Elissonde has looked strong in this race however and there was no suggestion that he might struggle badly on the final climb, instead it seemed like it could be minimal time gaps that could decide the leader at the end of the day.
Sadly for the Frenchman the racing, including a short period where he was dropped in crosswinds, took its toll and he was dropped very early on the final climb, as Primož Roglič sailed away into the distance and back into the race lead.
Roglič now leads the Vuelta a España by 25 seconds to Enric Mas from Movistar, which for the Slovenian machine is a comfortable advantage for now - but expect him to attack even more when real mountains return on stage seven.
How did the other GC contenders fare on the short climb?
Ineos Grenadiers were clearly the most motivated team early on the final climb, as they set up Egan Bernal at the head of the bunch as the road ramped up.
Bernal, winner of the 2021 Giro d’Italia, looked powerful later on the climb but eventually slipped back slightly as a punchy ascent like that doesn’t suit his credentials.
The Colombian finished with the frontrunners on stage six though, and now sits in fifth place overall, tied with Alejandro Valverde at 41 seconds behind Roglič, which is a considerable time gap and will take some fairly ambitious attacks to claw back.
Bernal’s team-mate Adam Yates lost another handful of seconds as his GC hopes continue to move in the wrong direction - he’s now 1-22 off the race lead in 11th place.
Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) was another stand-out performance on Alto de la Montaña de Cullera, finishing fourth on the stage and jumping up five places on GC into sixth, 53 seconds behind Roglič.
Britain’s Hugh Carthy suffered a slightly disastrous day, after he was forced to chase down the bunch in the crosswinds during the final 10km, and then lost contact on the final climb, finishing 2-50 down on the leader by the finish.
Carthy has now slipped down to 33rd place overall, at 4-28 behind the race leader.
While his hopes of victory are effectively dashed, he may still be able to climb his way back into the top-10 and hope for a strong finish, and maybe even a stage win later in the race.
Movistar among the strongest teams
Movistar’s team tactics are often the butt of the joke in the cycling world, as we often wait in anticipation for the next series of their Netflix documentary to find out what they were actually doing on any given stage.
But in this Vuelta we’re seeing a very different kind of Movistar.
On the first mountain stage on day three we saw the leadership trident of Alejandro Valverde, Enric Mas, and Miguel Ángel López finish strongly together at the top of Picón Blanco with their GC hopes still intact.
Then on stage six Movistar emerged as the aggressors in the crosswinds, as they led the bunch throughout the final 30km, setting the pace and helping to cause splits in the bunch in the hope of distancing their rivals.
It was not a hugely successful attempt, as none of the GC contenders lost any time in the wind, but the intention was there for the home WorldTour team.
Onto the brutal final climb of the day Movistar looked like they might have missed the decisive move as Ineos set a ripping pace early on the ascent.
But after 1km of climbing, Movistar gradually clawed their way back to the front of the bunch with Miguel Àngel López eating up the gradients and helping to catch the breakaway, before Roglič launched his attack to pull away from the GC contenders.
It was another storming effort from Movistar though, as once again all three of their leaders finished right at the sharp end of the race - is the trident approach finally paying off?
The GC standings after the stage are very striking, as Movistar now occupy the next three spots behind Roglič - Mas at 25 seconds, López at 36 seconds and Valverde at 41 seconds.
Crosswinds finally deliver the excitement
The rumours of crosswinds have spread through the cycling world throughout this first week of the Vuelta a España 2021, only for fans to be disappointed by the lack of echelons...until stage six.
Into the final 40km of the stage to Alto de la Montaña de Cullera and the peloton began to be buffeted on the pan-flat fields of Valencia, and the splits finally came.
The biggest casualty as the peloton crumbled in the winds was race Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo), who found himself dropping out the back of the main bunch and out of the virtual red jersey.
But the Frenchman was able to sneak his way back into the bunch, as it was then Hugh Carthy’s turn to get caught out by the echelons, as he lost contact with the main group in the final 20km.
Fortunately for Carthy he had plenty of team-mates to guide him back to the bunch after a fairly nervy chase, where the gap hung in the balance before the racing calmed slightly into the final 10km, EF Education-Nippo then quickly moving to the front of the peloton to avoid making the same mistake.
While the wind didn’t cause any casualties on GC, it was a welcome bit of action after what have been some very tame sprint days out in Spain.
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