The Primož Roglič era at the Vuelta a España isn’t over yet. When the Slovenian conceded over a minute to Remco Evenepoel on Pico Jano two days ago, it was tempting to couch the moment as a passing of the torch. Roglič’s performance at Colláu Fancuaya on stage 8 confirmed that such an assessment was a touch premature.
Evenepoel was, once again, the strongest of the general classification contenders on the first part of the Vuelta’s arduous weekend in Asturias, a point he underlined with a defiant effort to win the sprint for fifth on the stage after shredding the red jersey group in the final 4km of the climb. The Belgian, as the Clásica San Sebastián suggested and Pico Jano confirmed, is the man of the moment, and he passed his first real test as Vuelta leader with consummate assurance here.
As at Pico Jano, Enric Mas (Movistar) turned himself inside out to hold Evenepoel’s wheel, and he remains 28 seconds down in second place overall. But this time out, they had Roglič for company. The pre-race favourite moves up to third overall, 1:01 off Evenepoel. He’s still here.
“It was good to see Primož being really strong today: it’s nice to see him like this, it’s good for the race,” Evenepoel said afterwards. Perhaps, but it’s hardly good for Evenepoel – his most dangerous rival remains resolutely in the fight for final overall victory.
The low cloud that swept over Colláu Fancuaya caused live television footage to cut out just as Evenepoel was beginning his show of forcing with 4km remaining. At that point, there were over a dozen riders lined up behind the Belgian. By the time he emerged from the mist at the finish, he had only Mas and Roglič for company.
Beyond the line, Evenepoel looked strikingly fresh as he chatted amiably with his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl soigneur before being ushered towards the podium. “Whoooh,” he exhaled after a swig from his recovery drink.
Roglič, by contrast, was more haggard of expression as his soigneur pushed him away from the finish area, but the winning – and losing – of Grand Tours comes in managing the bad days as much as taking advantage of the good ones.
The jury is still out, of course, as to Roglič’s true condition in the aftermath of the fractured vertebrae that ended his Tour de France prematurely. Victory at Laguardia on stage 4 suggested the recovery was complete, but Pico Jano highlighted that he is not pedalling with the vim of twelve months ago. Sunday’s stiff finale at Les Praeres and, above all, Tuesday’s time trial in Alicante, will reveal much more.
There will be mild concern, too, that Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma guard is not quite as strong as in Vueltas past, at least in the high mountains, though Sepp Kuss has a habit of hitting his stride by the second week.
No matter, after being knocked to the canvas at Pico Jano, Roglič withstood Evenepoel’s onslaught here. He parried the knock-out blow to earn a draw from a round he risked losing. The fight is still long.
Youth over Yernes
Though Roglič kept himself in the hunt and Mas underscored his credentials, the day was still a successful one for Evenepoel, who coolly overcame his first real test as the leader of a Grand Tour. More to the point, so too did his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl squad, which took up the reins at the base of the ascent to Colláu Fancuaya to tee up Evenepoel’s decisive effort on its upper reaches.
It was the second time in as many mountain stages that QuickStep dictated the terms of engagement. There may have been questions about their ability to manage Evenepoel’s lead but, for now at least, they are providing solid answers. “We showed today what a real GC team is all about,” said Evenepoel.
The stage 10 time trial to Alicante was long expected to be the cornerstone of Evenepoel’s Vuelta challenge, but he has already placed clear daylight between himself and men like Simon Yates (7th at 2:05), João Almeida (8th at 2:44) and Jai Hindley (9th at 2:51). Those gaps could yawn out irretrievably in Tuesday’s 30.1km test.
Just eight days and two mountain stages into the Vuelta, only five riders lie within two minutes of Evenepoel in the overall standings. Behind Mas and Roglič, the Ineos duo of Carlos Rodriguez and Tao Geoghegan Hart are now fourth and fifth, respectively, but the challenges of Pavel Sivakov (12th at 3:31) and Richard Carapaz (25th at 6:46) already appear to be over.
The village of Yernes, at the base of Colláu Fancuaya, reached national prominence when it emerged that no children had been born there since 2005, a consequence of the migration from this sparsely-populated corner of Asturias to the country’s urban centres.
On Saturday, the mountainside was altogether more amenable to youth, with the 21-year-old Rodriguez staying with the red jersey group almost to the summit and 19-year-old Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) limiting his losses to lie sixth overall at 2:02. Above all, the 22-year-old Evenepoel wears the red jersey of race leader.
But while the overall balance may be tilting towards an emerging generation of Grand Tour contenders, Roglič – a decade Evenepoel’s senior – hasn’t left the conversation just yet.