Jumbo-Visma passed the red jersey off like a rugby ball through the opening four days of the Vuelta a España before opting to kick for touch on stage 5 to Bilbao.
After Primož Roglič’s show of strength at Laguardia on Tuesday, the Dutch squad looked to manage their resources on the Vuelta’s second day in the Basque Country, ceding the overall lead to Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ).
As Roglič and Jumbo-Visma know too well from their April excursions to Itzulia Basque Country, controlling a bike race in this verdant corner of the world is easier said than done.
Some 50km were covered in the first hour of a stage with five classified climbs, and the day’s break eventually forged clear a little over a third of the way through. Jumbo-Visma maintained a patrolling brief at the head of the bunch, but they gradually allowed the break’s lead to yawn outwards over the twin ascents of the Alto del Vivero.
Roglič reached Bilbao safely in the body of the peloton, 5:09 behind stage winner Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates). In the overall standings, the Slovenian drops to fifth overall, 4:09 behind Molard, though he remains the best-placed of the men with designs on final victory in Madrid.
Speaking to reporters past the finish line, Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Grischa Niermann confirmed that his team had been glad to rid themselves of the maillot rojo, at least temporarily.
“Obviously yes, it was ok for us,” Niermann said. “We expected a lot of attacking to go in the break and that was the case. And it was a good break to give the jersey to. We are happy to do so because controlling for three weeks in a row will be hard.
“Every day that our guys can relax a little bit and let another team take over is nice for us. It was a good day for us, but that breakaway would have been pretty hard to pull back anyway. We made a decision, and we knew in advance it would be ok to give the jersey away.”
Niermann’s thoughts were echoed by his colleague Addy Engels, who explained that the make-up of the thirteen-man breakaway had convinced Jumbo-Visma to knock off the pace and concede the jersey. Earlier in Roglič’s development, his team made the costly decision to yield the maglia rosa to Richard Carapaz on the 2019 Giro d’Italia, but Engels maintained that Wednesday’s break did not feature a dangerman of similar stature.
“For us the most important thing was who would be in the break. If it was someone who could be a threat for the GC, then it would have been a hard job for us,” Engels said. “After such a fight for the break, there’s only strong riders in front, but it was good for us. It was good to give them some space and good to give away the jersey like this.”
Yet while Roglič has divested himself of the red jersey, he and his squad remain the point of reference for the rest of the peloton after their collective show of force in the opening team time trial in Utrecht and the Slovenian’s flex in the finale of stage 4 in Laguardia.
That victory put Roglič 27 seconds clear of Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), and it appeared to allay any concerns about his recovery from the injuries that cut short his Tour de France.
“It wasn’t a surprise, but a nice confirmation that he’s going well,” Niermann said. “We knew it before, but also for himself it was a little bit of an unknown, how good he was compared to the other guys. I would say pretty good. There’s still two and a half weeks to go, so a lot of things can happen, but for now we are in the place we want to be.”
Groupama-FDJ will, notionally at least, be tasked with controlling the peloton early on stage 6, even if Jumbo-Visma’s yellow and black jerseys will surely feature on the front come the finish at Pico Jano.
The 12.6km climb above San Miguel de Aguayo is the first category 1 ascent of the Vuelta and the first major test for the general classification contenders. Even without the red jersey to defend, Jumbo-Visma’s task will not be altogether different, though Molard and Groupama-FDJ should at least be an ally of circumstance.
“If we need to take control, then we will,” Engels said. “Of course, tomorrow is an important day, and we need to be up there at the right moments and that will take energy. But I think it’s different to being in the lead yourself.”