After 10 stages of the Vuelta a España, Remco Evenepoel now has a healthy lead over his nearest contenders. Tuesday's time trial saw the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider extend the gap to second place by 48 seconds, meaning he now leads Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) by 2-41.
With 11 stages to come, including five mountainous stages, there is still a lot of space for the race to be decided. However, the Belgian has looked imperious so far, comfortable on short punchy drags, longer climbs, and against the clock. Therefore, might it be off the bike rather than on the road that the race is decided?
Even as the rest of society has emerged from Covid restrictions, the virus is still around - and it is seriously impacting this Vuelta a España.
On Wednesday, Simon Yates and Pavel Sivakov were among five more riders to be forced out of the race with Covid. The tally now stands at 21, more than a tenth of the riders who originally started in Utrecht, and has impacted multiple teams, not just a select few.
The virus has found its way into the team of the race leader, with Pieter Serry not starting stage nine thanks to a positive Covid test. Masks might be ubiquitous, but the spectre of the pandemic very much hangs over the race; there is only so much mitigation that can be done, and it feels like luck might be more useful than judgement at this stage. Indeed, Dries Devenyns, Evenepoel's teammate, told Cycling Weekly that the only way to avoid Covid was "to be lucky, I'm afraid."
Evenepoel revealed that he is not even getting close to his fiancée, Oumaima, because of protocols with the virus. No chances are being taken; at the Tour de France, Tadej Pogačar was seen kissing his partner through a mask, but even this might beyond the pale at the moment.
"Being careful with Covid, we're not gonna come really close to each other," he said in Tuesday's press conference. "We will say hello in the open air, but I will try to stay in the team's bubble as much as possible."
Of course, Covid is not the only threat to Evenepoel's lead in the red jersey. 2-41 is not an impregnable lead, even if there have not been swings of this margin in recent Grand Tours. At this year's Tour, it was the man who had seized control of the race by the midway point - Jonas Vingegaard - who would go on to control the lead to the finish.
Roglič remains dangerous in second place, even if he has not appeared to be the Roglič who won the previous three editions this summer. He was forced out of the Tour, and has struggled with a back problem at times. The sight of him being dropped remains novel.
His Jumbo-Visma DS, Grischa Niermann, pointed out to Wielerflits (opens in new tab) that the Slovenian had a two minute advantage over eventual winner Richard Carapaz in the 2019 Giro d'Italia. At that same race in 2016, Steven Kruijswijk had 4-43 over Vincenzo Nibali on stage 18, with the latter going to win.
"We keep on fighting," Niermann said. "He doesn't accept a podium place. He's here to win. Primoz will not ride to Madrid to defend his place. If you want to win, you need to be prepared to lose and take risks. He's willing to do that."
However, the Vuelta is not a backloaded Giro, with relentless days in the Dolomites for a rider's lead to be ground to dust, although there are still tough stages on the menu. There is the queen stage still to come, to Sierra Nevada, with 4,018 metres of climbing, plus four other category one climb finishes, starting tomorrow. Then there are all the usual problems three-week racing brings, nutrition, crashes, fatigue, ordinary non-pandemic sickness.
Evenepoel has looked up to the task so far, so it will be up to his rivals to try and prise him out of red. This is just his second Grand Tour, and while the first 10 days have gone well, there is a lot more racing to be done - it was after stage 10 of last year's Giro that the young Belgian dropped from second to seventh, and then out of contention all together. 2-41 is a different story, this Vuelta feels another kind of opportunity.
With more experience, and another year on him, this might be a different rider, and that is certainly the impression that he has given this year. With that in mind, it might well not be Roglič or Enric Mas (Movistar) that Quick-Step are scared of, with Covid looming over the race.
With two of the top ten out of the race on Wednesday, for non-cycling reasons, the peloton will be nervous. Let's hope Evenepoel wins or loses through his form, not through airborne particles.
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