CAN EVENEPOEL MAINTAIN HIS IMPERIOUS FORM?
The overall lead might have changed hands a remarkable five times in five days at the start of the Vuelta, but since Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) took custody of the red jersey following the Pico Jano climb at the end of stage six, it’s been in firm hands.
Evenepoel has looked untouchable on the uphill finishes during the first week, on each one launching seated attacks from his distinctive crouched style to fly up at a pace that barely any — if any at all — of his GC rivals can follow.
These are the kind of performances we’ve grown familiar watching the three-time reigning champion of this race Primož Roglič produce during the opening Grand Tours. If anything, though, Evenepoel has been even more dominant, his lead of 1-12 on GC being bigger than any Roglič has ever held going into the second week of any Grand Tour.
Worryingly for his rivals, that lead is likely to grow even bigger after tomorrow’s 30.9km time trial. Evenepoel is the kind of elite time trialist who can put huge amounts of time even into other specialists, as he did on a course of similar length at the Volta ao Algarve earlier this year, where the second-place rider (Stefan Küng) was a whopping 58 seconds adrift. Against the non-specialist red jersey contenders, his gains could therefore be enormous.
The real test for Evenepoel will come later this week, when he will have to defend the red jersey (assuming nothing dramatic has happened by them to see him lose the jersey) over the monstrous back-to-back summit finishes of La Pandera and Sierra Nevada. He might have been the dominant rider during last weekend’s double-header, but how will his recovery be after an extra week of racing? Might the pressure start getting to him? And how will he and his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team cope if and when his rivals start to try and attack him?
As firm as his grip on the red jersey appears at the moment, these are the questions Evenepoel will have to answer this week if he is indeed going to win the Vuelta a España.
DOES ROGLIC STILL HAVE IT IN HIM TO WIN A FOURTH VUELTA TITLE?
After one week of racing at the Vuelta, Primož Roglič still does not quite look like himself. The three-time winner was dropped on the Pico Jano climb not just by Remco Evenepoel, but also Enric Mas (Movistar) and Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), riders who have rarely if ever looked capable of matching him on the climbs. And although he went better on stage eight’s Colláu Fancuaya to stick with Evenepoel and Mas, he was dropped again the following day on Les Praeres, the kind of short, steep climb that is usually his bread and butter.
Doubts about his fitness have resurfaced, some wonder if he hasn’t fully recovered from his Tour de France injuries. Is he really in shape to compete for GC? Should he even be here at all? And has he already lost the race? With a deficit of 1-52 to Evenepoel that’s greater than any he’s ever had to make up during his three-year reign as Vuelta champion. His task is already looking tough.
And yet, for all his apparent woes, the Slovenian is actually still very well-placed. He’s still as high as third-place on GC, and can realistically expect to leapfrog Mas into second following stage ten’s time trial.
Although he was dropped early on Les Praeres, he actually limited his losses very well, and ultimately finished only a few seconds behind Mas. At no point did panic set in — he knows he isn’t yet as strong as Evenepoel and Mas, and so is riding defensively for now rather than on the front foot.
The operative word here is ‘yet’. If Roglič is indeed still being held back by his Tour de France problems, then we can reasonably expect him to grow into this race, and work his way gradually into top form. As a veteran of Grand Tours, the second and third week should be where he really comes into his own.
The fightback will surely start in the time trial, where he will expect to gain time over all his rivals aside from Evenepoel. But it’s the mountains during the weekend at the end of the second week where we will really learn if he can win yet another Vuelta title.
MAS AND OTHERS STILL IN CONTENTION
Remco Evenepoel might have been peerless during the first week, but his lack of proven credentials at this level will surely be giving other riders who remain high on GC encouragement going into the second week.
Enric Mas has been bold enough to tell the media that he has an “all or nothing” mindset, and intends to “do everything to win the race.” Two times a podium finisher at the Vuelta, this might just be his best Grand Tour start to date, and having never won one before, will surely not want to pass up an opportunity to try to do so.
Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) might not be going quite so well as the Spaniard, but has been there or thereabouts on all the summit finishes so far, and finds himself sixth at 3-08. Given his surprise win in Budapest at the Giro this season, the stage ten time trial may actually be an opportunity to gain time rather than lose it, and he’s certainly one of the riders still in contention to capitalise should Evenepoel falter.
Between him and Mas are two young Spanish Grand Tour debutants who, like Evenepoel, we have no idea how will go during the second week. Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) have if nothing else proven there’s a bright future for the Spanish, but can they already break the nation’s seven-year drought without a Grand Tour title?
In seventh at 4-32, João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) can expect to gain ground on many ahead of him during stage ten’s time trial, while Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan) will surely slip down from his current position of eighth at 5-03 given his past struggles against the clock.
Behind him are seven riders all separated by 22 seconds, all of whom might be hoping to gradually rise up the rankings should the less experienced riders ahead of them falter — of these, Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) may yet have big role to play in this race as former Grand Tour winners.
BENNETT AND PEDERSEN'S BATTLE IN THE SPRINTS
It’s been a long wait for the bunch sprinters at the Vuelta, who haven’t had a chance to compete for a stage since the race reached mainland Spain a week ago, but stages 11 and 13 this week both look set to finish in bench sprints.
While the likes of Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates) and Daniel McLay (Arkéa Samsic) will beg to differ, the first two sprints in the Netherlands suggests we’re in for another showdown between Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo).
These stages will also see a resumption in their battle for the green jersey. Bennett might have beaten Pedersen into second to win those two stages, but the Dane’s superior climbing means he’s wearing green at the moment, albeit by a mere five points.
Intriguingly, each stage suits one rider more than the other, with the first conventional flat finish playing into Bennett’s, and the draggy uphill to the line on the latter potentially giving Pedersen a chance.
Pedersen will surely be eyeing up more chances to gain points away from the sprint finishes, as he did last week at the uphill finish to Lagardia and in the break on stage eight, but with no middle ground between flat stages and mountain top finishes this week, his only chance to do so will likely be getting by into the breaks during the mountain stages in order to gain points at the intermediate sprints.
With Pedersen prioritising the Vuelta over the World Championships, and Bennett’s Bora-Hansgrohe’s GC campaign having gone awry, both riders are fully committed to aiming for green, setting up what should be a thrilling contest.
MORE IN STORE FROM THE STAR OF THE FIRST WEEK
Aside from Remco Evenepoel, there has been one stand-out star from the Vuelta so far — Jay Vine.
The Australian has set the race alight in the mountains, claiming the first and second professional victories of his career on Pico Jano and Colláu Fancuaya respectively. Add to that his unconventional backstory of having become a professional on the back of winning the Zwift Academy in 2020, and he’s been generating loads of headlines and feel-good stories all week.
So what next for the 26-year-old? He’s targeting the King of the Mountains classification, which he currently leads by 19 points, and in truth winning it really ought to be relatively straightforward. He’s in the sweet spot of climbing well enough to compete for the red jersey along with the top GC favourites, but being far enough down on GC (30th at 19-46) to be allowed freedom to get into breakaways, so hoovering up more points won't be a problem.
The real question therefore isn’t will he win the classification, but how many more stages can he win. Stages 12, 14 and 15 are all possibilities, each finishing with the kind of summit finishes his previous wins came from.
The only problem he’s likely to encounter are riders refusing to work with him in breakaways. Who’s going to want him in the same group when he’s climbing so much better than every other non-GC breakaway candidate right now?
He’ll have to ride smartly, therefore, but if can get his tactics right, a big haul of stage wins could be on the cards.
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