There was a time before Primož Roglič at the Vuelta a España. Think, carefully, and you might just remember it. 2018 does feel like an entirely different world, one which there was not a single Slovenian in the top ten of the race, and the words “Prime Minister Boris Johnson” were just a satirist’s dream, but it did exist.
Since then, the Jumbo-Visma rider has dominated the Spanish Grand Tour, winning three editions in a row – admittedly 2020 was won by just 24 seconds – but the Slovenian jointly holds the record for most Vueltas won in a row.
Up to Thursday, there was a lot of expectation that this year would be exactly the same. Sure, he might have broken two vertebrae at the Tour de France, leaving him with back pain, and forcing him out of the race, but he would not be at this race leading Jumbo if he was not back to near his best, right?
Then, Roglič stormed to victory on stage four, becoming the fourth rider from his team to wear the red jersey in succession, and it looked like things might be wrapped up already. Just like when his compatriot, Tadej Pogačar, went into the yellow jersey at the Tour after stage six, many thought this might be it; Roglič might let the lead go, but only to people who would not challenge him at the end of three weeks, right?
On stage six, things turned upside down once again. On the road to the race’s first summit finish, in biblical rain, the Jumbo rider’s punch deserted him. The man who has ruled Spain for the last few years suddenly looked fallible, his weakness on show. This was the first time he has looked like losing since Richard Carapaz’s attacks in vain in 2020, almost two years ago.
Remco Evenepoel of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl was the man to take advantage on Thursday. By the top of the climb, the Belgian had put an enormous 1-22 into Roglič, on the first serious test of the race, and now leads him on general classification by 61 seconds.
“I didn’t have the legs for the win,” the Slovenian explained. “I just fought all the way to the finish. It was on me at the end, but on the other hand all others want to win the race and fight for it also. It’s still a long way, today we lost a bit, but hopefully we will gain a bit later on.
On his rivals, he added: “They go strong, I didn’t really need that proof. It was untypical weather for the Vuelta. Everything is fine, and we go on for the next days.”
Now, this is nowhere near race over, as there are still 15 stages to come, with a lot of climbing and a time trial included. Evenepoel is no Pogačar yet, this is only his second Grand Tour, and time can be gained at any moment. Furthermore, Roglič still lies ahead of all the other GC contenders, Enric Mas of Movistar excluded, and so could be the first to pounce if the Spaniard or Evenepoel falter.
This all seems logical, and Roglič, as we saw above, is far from admitting defeat. However, cycling is very much a vibes-based sport, and while the vibes seemed good on stage four, the vibes seem off just two days later. Grand Tour winners don’t lose over a minute in time on the first mountain test, do they? The Vuelta might still have a long way to run, but the three-time champion looks beatable.