Jumbo-Visma underlined their status as the strongest team at the Vuelta a España with a dominating performance from start to finish of the eighth stage to the Xorret de Catí, which concluded with their three-time champion Primož Roglič taking the stage win and his American teammate Sepp Kuss removing the leader’s red jersey from the shoulders of young Frenchman Lenny Martinez.
After Groupama-FDJ’s Martinez had dropped away from the lead group on the towering slopes of the Xorret de Catí, eight riders emerged as contenders for the stage win. Jumbo’s trio of Roglič, Kuss and Jonas Vingegaard were matched by three from UAE Team Emirates – Juan Ayuso, João Almeida and Marc Soler. On their own were Soudal-QuickStep’s Remco Evenepoel and Movistar’s Enric Mas.
Halfway up the final climb, Evenepoel accelerated to the front, Roglič countered, then Kuss skipped away with the red jersey in his sights. With the gradient touching 20 per cent, Evenepoel gradually closed down the American’s advantage and then drove the pace at the front of the group to the top of the climb.
The Belgian champion stayed on the front down the rapid drop into the finish, raising the pace as the line approached. But Roglič stayed right on his wheel and burst by to take victory ahead of the race’s defending champion, with Ayuso third and Kuss just behind and celebrating as he became the race leader.
The good news for Evenepoel is that the injuries that he picked up when he crashed beyond the finish line when he won at Arinsal in Andorra last Monday aren’t hampering him any longer. ‘My legs felt good, my head is fine and everything went well,’ he said.
He admitted, though, that he wasn’t happy with the final turn of events. ‘Today we were riding for the victory. Probably the sports directors said it on the radio, but there were so many people I didn’t hear and it’s a shame,’ he said, as he revealed he had misjudged the finish.
‘I was on Roglič’s wheel, I felt easy, I was following him but I didn’t know where the line was. It’s a shame because I was looking for a second victory here and a few bonus seconds, but I ended up losing some time to Primož, which is a shame, and I feel a bit stupid actually.’
Jumbo-Visma’s riders, on the other hand, were all smiles at the finish. Their domestiques marshalled the peloton into the final climb and their leaders then did exactly what was expected of them. It was another demonstration by the Dutch team.
‘Now I feel even more relaxed,’ said stage winner Roglič. ‘First of all, I’m happy that I recovered after my crash [on stage two], and I’m enjoying it now, taking it day by day,’ explained the three-time Vuelta champion. ‘The guys did an amazing job of controlling a strong breakaway and I had no choice but to win at the end.’ Asked how many riders Jumbo-Visma now have for the overall title, Roglič quipped with a big smile: ‘We’ve got three for now, but there might be another one coming.’
Kuss, who now leads Soler by 43 seconds and Martinez by a minute, admitted that he was struggling to believe that he was now the race leader having taken a stage victory at the Javalambre summit two days ago. ‘It’s nice and we’ll see how it is over the next few days,’ said the American. ‘Once you get the jersey, you have to be a bit more in front and pay more attention to everything that’s going on, rather than being able to relax in the peloton.'
The road to Xorret de Catí
With everyone well aware that a breakaway had a good chance of going the distance, there was a frenetic battle to join the escape group. After a first sortie by 13 riders had been neutralised, another two groups clipped away off the front and came together, putting 30 riders ahead of the peloton.
The level of collaboration fluctuated in this lead group. Lotto-Dstny’s Thomas De Gendt was the most aggressive of the escapees, the Belgian veteran spending a long spell on his own before being reeled in and dropped on the penultimate of the day’s climbs. This left 21 riders at the head of affairs, with the peloton three minutes back, the pace there being set by Jumbo-Visma rather than race leader Martinez’s Groupama-FDJ team.
With 44km remaining, four riders jumped clear of the breakaway group: Intermarché-Circus’s Rui Costa, Bahrain Victorious’s Damiano Caruso, Movistar’s Spanish champion Oier Lazkano and Lotto-Dstny’s Andreas Kron, winner of the second stage in Barcelona. After their companions had been swept up by the Jumbo-led peloton, this quartet were reeled in too with 5km remaining on the acutely steep slopes of the Xorret de Catí, soon after race leader Martinez had been dropped by his rivals.
At this point, the true contenders for the overall title emerged, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates having strength in numbers, while Evenepoel and Mas will draw on the experience previous successful Vuelta campaigns and returning form to bolster their hopes.
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