Remco Evenepoel’s dominance at this Vuelta a España has, for the time being at least, revised everybody’s ambitions downwards. For Primož Roglič, a day without leaking time at Peñas Blancas counted as a minor success, or at least as a sign that his challenge still holds water.
Evenepoel was briefly halted by a crash 64km from the finish of stage 12, but though his kit was torn and his hip bloodied in the incident, there never seemed to be any prospect of the red jersey’s race unravelling in Andalusia.
Even so, Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma squad dictated the tempo in the peloton at the bottom of the 20km haul up Peñas Blancas, with Rohan Dennis performing a lengthy stint of pace-making, largely in the big ring. After Dennis swung off, his compatriot Chris Harper put in two turns of his own, but while their efforts whittled down the red jersey group, Evenepoel and his remaining teammates Ilan Van Wilder and Louis Vervaeke were unmoved.
Roglič, meanwhile, was tucked in a few wheels behind Evenepoel, and he would remain there more or less to the summit. When Evenepoel himself hit the front in the final 2km, Roglič briefly appeared to be distanced, but he calmly made it across. The Slovenian would cross the line in a group containing the maillot rojo, Enric Mas (Movistar) and Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), 7:39 down on stage winner Richard Carapaz (Ineos).
In the overall standings, Roglič remains second, 2:41 behind Evenepoel and 22 seconds ahead of Mas. Evenepoel’s performances to date mean that Roglič’s hopes are already flickering, but the nine remaining stages and his treasury of experience in this race are keeping the flame alive for now.
“We will see. For sure today I had a good feeling, so hopefully I can improve a bit,” Roglič said before he descended to his team bus after the finish. “We are a bit behind, so we need to catch up. It’s still a long way, but it was actually not bad.”
After Evenepoel’s comprehensive victory in Tuesday’s time trial in Alicante, Roglič maintained his form to be in crescendo but conceded that the Belgian was “on a different level.” Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Addy Engels suggested that Roglič’s approach in the second week would be to avoid further time losses in the hope of hitting his stride as the race draws closer to Madrid.
Jumbo-Visma’s deployment of Dennis and Harper on Thursday wasn’t a grand offensive of the kind that dramatically propelled Jonas Vingegaard into the yellow jersey on the Col du Granon at the Tour de France, but it was at least a sign of their willingness to test the waters.
“We’ll see how it goes,” said Roglič. “Last year I had a similar start to now. I was certainly not the best in the beginning, so I hope to be even better now. We’re going to see how I improve. I’m looking forward to the coming days.”
This year as last, Roglič arrived at the Vuelta after a heavy crash forced him to abandon the Tour de France, but thereafter the comparison quickly wears thin. Although Roglič was third overall at this point of the 2021 Vuelta, 1:46 down on ephemeral leader Odd Christian Eiking, he was already half a minute clear of Mas and almost three ahead of Egan Bernal, the man expected to be his closest rival.
The situation is wholly different here. Evenepoel has been, emphatically, the strongest rider in this race through the first twelve stages. On Thursday, his obvious physical qualities were complemented by the calm he showed in the aftermath of his crash on a slippery right-hand bend. Despite the wound to his hip, the Belgian never once appeared in difficulty on the interminable ascent towards Peñas Blancas.
“They just slid in front of me,” Roglič said of the crash. “I also already did that, I think last year. It’s slippery here. Sometimes you see the roads are shining, and you can be really, really fast on the floor.”
Evenepoel, however, was immediately back on his bike after that misstep, and his footing atop the overall standings remains as steady as before. He is showing little sign of being knocked off that perch.