As Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) was celebrating major gains after a brutal stage nine of the Vuelta a España, just a few metres away his main rivals at looked on dejected. Forlorn.
Primož Roglič (Jumboo-Visma) had just ceded 52 seconds to Evenepoel on the 24 percent gradients of Les Preares, and Enric Mas (Movistar) was leaning over his handlebars, the Spaniard trying to recover after failing to hold onto Evenepoel’s attack and high rhythm. Simon Yates of BikeExchange-Jayco looked to the sky and let out a sigh.
Winners don’t take too kindly too losing, and Roglič – a victor of this very race in each of the last three editions – was snappy. He got what he needed from his soigneurs, refused to do any media and headed straight back down the mountain, even though half the field were still battling their way up the climb.
He was in no mood to even talk to his teammates, his difference to Evenepoel now sitting at 1-53, with the Slovenian knowing that Evenepoel is likely to slightly increase that advantage in Tuesday’s 31km time trial.
Upon arriving back at his team bus, Roglič again refused interviews, but his DS Grischa Niermann offered some telling insight. “Primož is not 100 percent yet. We hoped that Primož could stay with Evenepoel, but no one could follow Remco,” he said.
“He is not the leader for nothing. This was also a fair climb. The best rode away from the rest. Today we wanted to limit the damage. The gap is big, but Primož has limited damage, and we still have two weeks to go… but of course we would have liked to have been closer.”
Mas, second on GC, now sits 1-12 behind Evenepoel. The Spaniard had valiantly kept the Belgian within sight for a good proportion of the climb, but as Evenepoel began to pull away, Mas drifted backwards, finishing behind his compatriot Juan Ayuso (UAE-Team Emirates).
He wasn’t as visibly stressed and as pained as Roglič, but he was regretful. “I was too busy trying to follow Remco,” he rued. “It would have been better for me if I had regulated [his rhythm] a little more. It would have ended up closer.” He looked to the camera, and smiled. “I know for next time.”
Mas is only one good climbing performance from him and a bad day from Evenepoel away from the red jersey, but right now he can’t see away past the 22-year-old. “He seems unbeatable,” he reasoned. “But this is three weeks. The Vuelta is very long.”
His fellow countryman Ayuso was in much better spirits, the teenage sensation moving up to fifth on GC, just 43 second behind a podium spot. But even he had to admit that he was incapable of bettering the leader.
“He is fuertísimo – so strong,” the 19-year-old said. “I had better sensations than yesterday and I tried, but Remco was far superior to us all.”
Ayuso belies his tender years with both his performance on the bike and his conduct off it. He acts like an elder statesman of the sport, but was keen to remind everyone of his inexperience. “I have been a pro for one year,” he said. “To make the podium in my first Vuelta at 19… it’d irresponsible to say that. It’s a dream I have but we have to be realistic.”
The 2018 winner Yates stuck around a little longer than Roglič, talked to his minders and briefly chatted with his teammates. But he, too, was unhappy, having lost 1-03 to Evenepoel. Even though he jumped up to sixth courtesy of Tao Geoghegan Hart’s tumble down the standings, he is 3-08 off Evenepoel. He was also in no mood to speak to the press.
Nine minutes after Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) won the stage, Richard Carapaz came by, the Ecuadorian rounding off a very poor opening nine stages by his standards, currently occupying 26th place and out of contention for a top-10.
Carapaz always has a monotone voice, but he was even more downcast than usual. “It’s been a very difficult day,” he said. “I haven’t had a very good week for the team.”
A journalist asked why he doesn’t have his best form right now. “Gracias, chicos,” he signed off. He was another one who had no desire to discuss a bad day at the office.
Evenepoel, meanwhile, jumped onto the podium. Sporting a huge grin and resplendent in the red jersey that he is honouring so well, he throw his arms in the air, high above the green and savage valleys of Asturias. It’s his Vuelta to lose, and all his rivals knows it.