Roglič in control, but how will he ride?
Even though he isn’t in the red jersey, you sense that Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) is in total control of this Vuelta a España. He has no fears about taking the 1-36 he needs from current race leader Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), maintains an advantage over all of his major GC rivals, and has shown no signs of weakness so far.
Then there’s the matter of the 33.8km time trial at Santiago de Compostela that will conclude the race on Sunday. With that stage on the horizon, Roglič knows he should be able to gain significant time once the mountains are done, meaning the pressure is on his rivals to gain time over him while they still can.
How might this affect Roglič’s approach for this week? Given what’s happened to Roglič during final weeks of past Grand Tours, he might also be wary of riding too aggressively, so as to avoid going too deep and running out of legs when it matters; but then again, the way his 57-second advantage over Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) did not, contrary to expectations, turn out to be enough to win the yellow jersey at the 2020 Tour de France might also prompt him this time to want a bigger advantage this time around
It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that Roglič will need to get right if he’s to finish off and win what has so far been an exemplary ride by him.
Attacks from Movistar in the high mountains
Unlike Roglič, it’s much less ambiguous how Movistar will approach this week. With Enric Mas 35 seconds behind Roglič and Miguel Ángel López 1-28 seconds adrift, they need to gain time if they are to win the Vuelta, even more so considering both riders’ inferiority against the clock.
They’ve already raced aggressively this Vuelta, with both riders working well together by attacking alternatively, but will now have to up the ante if they’re to avoid the frustrating fate of placing two riders on the podium but none on the top step.
Stages 17 and especially 18 present their best opportunities to do so. The famous climb of Lagos de Covadonga comes at the end of one of the hardest days in the saddle for the former, while the latter finishes atop this edition’s most feared climb, Alto Gamoniteiro.
On a climb like this, which has been compared to the nearby Angliru what with its ridiculous and unceasing gradients, it’s not so much about strategy as it is pure strength, with the riders going mano y mano with little thought of tactics. Aside from Roglič’s superior finishing sprint, there has been virtually nothing between him and Mas in the mountains so far, but there surely will be on this climb. This could be Mas and Movistar’s best chance to strike for glory.
If they fail to gain enough time on these mountain top finishes, more imaginative thinking will be required for the remaining stages. Neither stage 19’s hilly parcours nor stage 20’s modest mountainous terrain offer much in terms of obvious chances to attack; but so long as Movistar can play Mas and López as two separate GC cards, smart tactical ploys could yet be made to cause a late upset.
How far can Odd Christian Eiking go?
For all the discussion of Primož Roglič and the Movistar pair, it’s easy to forget that the man actually leading the race is still Odd Christian Eiking.
Although the Vuelta’s surprise package was dropped on the final climb of Saturday’s stage, he limited his losses to just a few seconds, while his team managed to boss the following stage in defence of the jersey.
While he should be pretty much guaranteed to wear the jersey for one extra day following tomorrow’s flat parcours, the mountain top finishes of Lagos de Covadonga and Alto de Gamoniteiro will likely be his Waterloo. These climbs are of a whole other level of difficulty, with gradients that could wipe out his 1-36 lead over Primož Roglič in a matter of kilometres.
Still, even if winning the Vuelta remains very much a long shot, a podium finish could be within his reach. He has over three minutes on every rider placed fifth and below on GC, which, given his resilient performances on the climbs so far, won’t be easy to take from him.
Much will depend on the time trial. Eiking is an unknown quantity in this discipline, having never before had to ride one so competitively. Don’t read much into the fact that he finished way down in 147th in the opening time trial at Burgos — he would have treated that stage as a rest, whereas now he will be fighting for what could be the biggest moment of his career.
Lots of riders still in podium contention
While it’s difficult to see past either Roglič, Mas or possibly López for overall victory, there are still several riders still in contention for a podium spot.
Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) certainly has the form to, having been the only rider to match the aforementioned trio on some of the recent climbs. The Australian is on the brink of finally achieving the high Grand Tour GC rank that he has promised for years, and a podium finish would be a dream.
The Ineos Grenadiers duo of Egan Bernal and Adam Yates had loftier ambitions than Haig going into the Vuelta but now look as though they’re in the same fight for the podium. Both are now almost three minutes down on Roglič, which would take a huge shift in fortunes that, even considering Bernal’s seemingly improving form, looks unlikely. A podium finish for either would at least salvage something from the race for Ineos.
And then there’s Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), who, like Eiking, still has a head start after the time he gained from stage 10’s breakaway. For someone who had up until this summer been chasing a first ever top 10 Grand Tour finish, making a podium would be a huge leap forward, but difficult with a long time trial to come.
Stage wins up for grabs
Fifteen of the 23 teams taking part at the Vuelta have yet to win a stage, and they have just six chances left to put that right.
As was the case during the last week, the key will be getting into the breakaways. The winless teams with strong climbers like Astana-Premier Tech and Trek-Segafredo will target the back-to-back summit finishes, hoping that the GC men allow them to contest the stage, while those with stacked with puncheurs and rouleurs, like Bora-Hansgrohe and BikeExchange, will want to make the most of stage 19’s rolling terrain.
There should be last sprint stage on Tuesday for Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) to try and break his duck and for Alberto Dainese (DSM) to get the win he’s come closer and closer to, although Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) will take some beating.
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