Will Primož Roglič crack?
Witch such a large gap over all of his GC rivals, the only way Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) will lose the red jersey before Madrid is if he suffers a sudden, drastic reversal in form and/or fortune.
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The Slovenian has a comfortable advantage of 2-48 over his nearest challenger Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in second, and a further 3-42 and 3-59 over Tadej Pogačar (UAE Emirates) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana) respectively.
However, Roglič won’t be counting his chickens just yet. It was only four months ago that he let a similarly large lead slip at the Giro d’Italia, where he weakened during the race’s second half to finish third overall despite having been prematurely declared the likely winner of that race.
This time he only has two more mountain stages to negotiate, so in all likelihood Roglič will be crowned champion some Sunday – but it will be a nervous few days before then.
The battle for the podium
Behind Roglič, things are a lot tighter on GC, with a mere 71 seconds separating Valverde, Pogačar and López.
Three doesn’t go into two, so – barring a disaster for Roglič – one of these riders will be left disappointed in their hunt for a podium finish.
Up until stage 16 Valverde had appeared most comfortable, but the way he was dropped on the final climb that day evoked memories of previous late collapses in Grand Tours, most recently at last year’s Vuelta when he was jettisoned off the podium on the penultimate day of the race. Although he limited his losses to just 23 seconds, it could be a sign that his form is deteriorating.
Pogačar and López will be battling for the white jersey for best young rider as well as a spot on the podium. Pogačar’s form has been on the ascendency, but – riding his first ever Grand Tour – he is entering uncharted territory. By contrast, López has been more inconsistent in the mountains, but does have the experience of having finished on the podium at two previous Grand Tours.
Two final mountain stages
Just two mountain stages remain in this Vuelta a España, but both are fearsome enough to have a significant impact on the race even at this late stage.
Neither end with the kind of steep summit finishes that characterised the major GC stages of the first and second week, but the sheer volume of climbing during each make the potential time losses and gains even greater.
Thursday’s stage 18 features four successive category one climbs, with barely a valley between them for the riders to recover. Sure, a 25km descent to the finish takes the edge off, but what comes before it is difficult enough to have already caused fatal time gaps.
After that, there’s still six summits still to conquer on Sunday’s penultimate stage of the race. Although lacking a standout climb, the sheer relentlessness of the undulating terrain will make this a tricky stage to negotiate, and require anyone defending a place on GC to be especially attentive.
More chances for the sprints
The sprinters have had a tough time of it so far at the Vuelta, having to endure mountain stage after mountain stage only to be offered three chances of a bunch sprint – one of which was disrupted by a huge crash.
But, as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. Unusually for a final week of a Grand Tour, there are still three days that look likely to end in bunch finishes – stages 17, 19, and the finale in Madrid.
That’s good news for Irish national champion Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has been pick of the bunch so far with two stage wins, and will fancy his chances of matching and perhaps even surpassing his Grand Tour personal best of a three stage haul picked up at last year’s Giro d’Italia.
He faces competition from stage 4 winner Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and, if he can rediscover his best form, Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), but not Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) who had to abandon due to the aforementioned stage 14 crash.
There is a chance that the breakaway will succeed on at least one of these days, given the fatigue that sets in around this time of a Grand Tour. But the fact that there’s only one categorised climb in total across all three stages means that things are surely in the sprinters’ favour.
La Madrid Challenge
Coinciding with the final weekend of the Vuelta will be the fifth edition of the women’s Ceratizit Madrid Challenge.
Now sponsored by Ceratizit, the event will take place over two days, the first being a 9.3km individual time trial held in Boadi lla del Monte, and the second the familiar circuit race around Madrid.
With the latter likely to culminate in a bunch sprint, the first stage will be crucial in deciding the overall winner of the race – and is the first individual time trial to feature in the event.
The full line-up is yet to be announced, but all the top teams will be present from Boels-Dolmans and Trek-Segafredo to Mitchelton-Scott and Ale-Cipollini, while Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) will lead the line for Sunweb.