In the looming, Gothic cathedral in Burgos, northern Spain, is the tomb of the legendary Medieval warlord, El Cid. But on the first day of the 76th Grand Tour of Spain, the racing was less like El Cid’s battles and instead saw the aero-precision of bicycles storming through the town and up into the hills.
The final man of the 228 to roll out from the door of the church and down the ramp to the road would also be the winner of the short 7.1km time trial. Primoz Roglic had returned to the Vuelta a Espana in an attempt not only to win the Red Jersey for the third time in a row, but also to rise from the ashes to once again redeem a season which saw the Slovenian fail to win the Tour de France, his primary goal.
All the favourites came through the time trial unscathed and all within a minute of Roglic. With another time trial on the final stage of this race, Roglic set out exactly as he meant to go on.
A big crash saw Adam Yates and Hugh Carthy lose time on Stage 2, while Stage 3 offered an excellent win for 36-year-old Rein Taaramae after he soloed away from the breakaway with 3km remaining and climbed up the Picon Blanco alone to take the win and the Red Jersey.
If Taaramae’s win was somewhat heart-warming, then what happened on Stage 4 was more of a miracle.
Here is a list of some of the injuries Fabio Jakobsen sustained last August in the Tour of Poland when he was pushed into a barrier during a bunch sprint: a brain contusion, a broken nose, a torn palate, the loss of 10 teeth, a skull fracture, and loss of parts of his upper and lower jaw. It was, then, hard not to feel emotional as he stormed across the line to take the win of Stage 4 at Molina de Aragon.
It was “King” Kenny Elissonde who would take the Red Jersey from Taaramae on Stage 5 following a crash in the final 12km which saw Taaramae taken down, but he wouldn’t wear it for long as Roglic was ready to reclaim the jersey after Stage 6.
With the final steep climb on Stage 6 some small gaps were expected. While Magnus Cort won from the breakaway, it was Roglic’s powerful performance to finish only metres behind the Dane, putting more time into his competitors, that would have sent a message to his rivals for red.
With much of the buzz surrounding the powerhouse teams of Jumbo-Visma and the Ineos Grenadiers, Movistar went almost unnoticed until the trio of riders, Enric Mas, Miguel Angel Lopez and Alejandro Valverde lit up the GC board, fitting into second, third and fourth behind the Slovenian and ahead of Egan Bernal on stage 6.
But unfortunately, if Jakobsen’s return to winning was the highest point of the race so far, the lowest was to come on Stage 7 for Movistar. The stage was set to be the first real challenge to the GC contenders and a clearer picture was hoped for by the end of the summit finish at Balcon de Alicante. While Michael Storer took a sensational win, Valverde looked set to take the battle to the group of favourites.
A small group broke of the front of the peloton. Valverde took Jose Joaquin Rojas with him, luring the Ineos Grenadiers duo of Richard Carapaz and Yates away from the main group. But it didn’t last long. Valverde hit a small crack in the road and the bike kicked out and the veteran landed hard on the road and slid into a gap in the metal barriers and down into the greenery of the hillside. He tried to ride on but soon Valverde had to stop by the side of the road.
We watched through the trees on a most intimate moment. The Spaniard knew he had to abandon his home Grand Tour and hugged his Team Director and we knew it was over. We later found out he had broken his collarbone.
Meanwhile Mikel Landa lost more time snd Hugh Carthy had to abandon therace. Something was clearly not right for the man from Preston, and he will now take some time to recover.
A quiet Stage 8, won once again by Jakobsen, gave the peloton the time to relax for the brutal Stage 9, with 4,700m of climbing over 188km.
The stage was made all the tougher by the first 100km which saw a high pace throughout, and a breakaway struggle to materialise. When it did, it would include Bahrain Victorious’s Damiano Caruso, the runner-up in this year’s Giro d’Italia, who would then solo away from the breakaway and cover a colossal 71km alone for the win, dousing himself with water as he went.
On the Alto de Velefique it was the sort of sepia light one can expect of this part of Spain, broken by the dark green of the trees and bushes as we wound around the switchbacks of the mountain. This was where we finally saw attacks coming from the GC contenders. It was Yates who made the first punch, followed by Movistar and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). He even managed to drop his own teammates, Bernal and Carapaz. But, almost at will, Roglic decided to close the gap with an ominous display of power.
Roglic picked his moments, reading the race to cover only the attacks he needed to. Yates tried again but could not get away from Roglic or Mas. Finally it was when Mas made a move, which Roglic followed with ease, that Yates was dropped.
Roglic sprinted for the line for the bonus seconds, just beating a Mas who showed he may be ready to take the challenge to Roglic, and surely securing his position as leader of Movistar over Lopez.
Meanwhile, Bernal and Carapaz just didn’t have the legs to match Yates on Stage 9. While Bernal may be a handful of seconds ahead of Yates on the GC (both within 2:07 of Roglic), it is Bernal who lost the most time on Stage 9, and it is Bernal who had the worse legs. Do Ineos Grenadiers regroup behind Yates solely?
Roglic is obviously the strongest after the first week, barely breaking a sweat as he crushed attacks. Mas, who sits only 28 seconds behind him overall, looks ready to take the fight to the Red Jersey for a resurgent Movistar team. How Movistar organise behind him will be key. Does Mas take sole leadership? The same can be asked of the Grenadiers. A confusing display on Stage 9, and the potential that Yates is the strongest of their three leaders will surely ask questions before we start racing again on Tuesday.
What of the others? Bahrain Victorious may put their eggs into Jack Haig’s basket after another strong performance on Stage 9 and his rise to fourth place overall. Landa is not performing to the level we expected and he may well turn instead to look for stage wins to save his race, but his leadership bid looks all but over.
Week two will surely offer some answers to these questions. But to beat Roglic is going to be tough. His rivals will have to seek to isolate him from his team, and even then they’re going to face a hard fight. It will be the punishing week three, however, that we will know for sure, who has the legs and the team to win the Vuelta a Espana.
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