All of a sudden, a Vuelta a España has broken out. In the week or so since Remco Evenepoel seized the red jersey at Pico Jano, it was beginning to feel more like a coronation than a bike race. The final four kilometres of stage 14 to La Pandera showed that Primož Roglič is not yet resigned to vacating the throne.
For a dizzying few minutes, it appeared as though Evenepoel might even be divested of the red jersey in the Sierra Sur de Jaén, but he steadied himself to restrict Roglič’s gains to 51 seconds by the summit. In the overall standings, Evenepoel is still 1:49 clear of the Slovenian. Yet while the time conceded was within acceptable limits, the cost of the lost air of invincibility is harder to calculate.
In some respects, the finale to stage 14 of the Vuelta was a Rorschach test for the race as a whole. At the finish, at least, the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl and Jumbo-Visma camps professed to interpret the ink blot in radically different ways.
This might prove to be the turning point of the Vuelta, the first firm stride from Roglič towards an ineluctable fourth straight overall win. Or it might turn out to be the day Evenepoel won the Vuelta by limiting his losses so well in his moment of greatest distress. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
Evenepoel’s teammate Ilan Van Wilder is his near doppelganger on a bike, and when he stepped off it atop La Pandera, the Belgian did a nice line in his echoing his leader’s bullishness. Van Wilder had been setting the tempo in the red jersey group when Roglič attacked with 4km remaining, but while he expressed admiration for the three-time winner’s acceleration, he downplayed its impact on the direction of travel at this Vuelta.
“We don’t have to panic,” Van Wilder said. “I think Roglič also lost time the previous days. It can happen that you have one day a bit less legs, but it’s no big deal. Remco just did his own pace. Ok, he lost a bit of time, but it’s nothing to worry about.”
Even so, Evenepoel had looked unassailable since he surged into the red jersey at Pico Jano on stage 6, adding to his advantage over Roglič with further feats of strength at Les Praeres and in the Alicante time trial. Not even a crash on stage 12 could slow Evenepoel, who strung out the red jersey group at day’s end with a searing effort Peñas Blancas.
In that context, Evenepoel’s loss of momentum atop La Pandera felt like an abrupt shift in the dynamic of the Vuelta. Wilder, a son of Brussels, preferred to focus on the certainty of the bottom line. Whatever about Evenepoel’s aura, his advantage remains a healthy one.
“I mean, he didn’t lose ten minutes. It’s 50 seconds, so it’s nothing to worry about,” Van Wilder, who came close to exasperation when the rigours of Sunday’s stage to Sierra Nevada were pointed out to him. “I know, but for Roglič, it’s the same, eh?”
Roglič has a tendency, exasperating for journalists but endearing to a wider public, to politely underplay the significance of both his good days and his bad ones. His sustained acceleration atop La Pandera suggested that this Vuelta might yet bend to his will, but, inevitably, he batted away the idea with the usual circumspection.
“Definitely a nice day, but you all know, eh, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose a bit,” Roglič said. “But hopefully we can keep this trend.”
Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Grischa Niermann was more effusive when he was flagged down by Eurosport at the finish. After the Alicante time trial, Roglič had conceded that Evenepoel was, for the time being at least, “on a different level,” a thought echoed by Jumbo-Visma management. The red jersey’s travails at La Pandera have clearly altered that perception.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect Evenepoel to concede time today, but it’s good for us, of course, it makes the race more open,” Niermann said. “He still has a lead of almost two minutes, but it was the first time we see that he is vulnerable and there are more days to come. I think Primož is in a good place right now.”
At Peñas Blancas on Thursday, Jumbo-Visma had set the early tempo on the climb but failed to discommode Evenepoel in the slightest. They repeated that approach here with a significantly greater return. After Robert Gesink set the tempo on the penultimate ascent of Puerto de Los Villares, Chris Harper put in a long shift on the lower slopes of La Pandera.
“Primož said this morning he would like to go for the stage, but we were not willing to pull all day,” Niermann said. “We asked Robert to pull and to make race hard, and that’s also what Primož wanted. He knew that it would become really hard with 4.5km to go, and he went immediately on the steep bit.”
Harper had already swung off by the time Roglič launched that acceleration, which only Enric Mas (Movistar) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) could follow. Mas was burnt off in the final kilometre, meaning that Roglič has also put more distance into the man lying third overall, but in truth, his Jumbo-Visma squad was thinking only of closing the gap on Evenepoel.
“It was a really good day,” said Harper. “I knew coming into the race that Primož would probably progressively get better, and that’s starting to show. Hopefully he can chip away at Remco’s lead day by day.”
Sunday’s stage to Sierra Nevada provides an immediate opportunity for Roglič and Jumbo-Visma to probe Evenepoel’s limits still further. The gradients on the upper part of the final climb may be rather gentler than those faced on stage 14, but the finish line is perched some 2,501 metres above sea level. At that altitude, every slight weakness tends to be magnified.
“Tomorrow is another important exam for everybody,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue, who insisted that the race was “still open for four or five riders.” That view seems fanciful, even if Mas’ deficit has contracted slightly to 2:43, but it is clear that this Vuelta is no longer a duel between Evenepoel and his own inexperience: Roglič is resolutely back in the contest.
Sierra Nevada will reveal an awful lot more, even if Roglič, understated to the last, always makes for a reticent pitchman. “We will see, eh,” he said on Saturday evening. “Today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow.”