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 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/2020

A Season-Ending Double-Header

As promised a week ago, this is my belated review of the late-season Giro-Vuelta double. A year ago, no one could have predicted that the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España would between them be the last blast of the 2020 racing season. But 2020 has been about as unpredictable as a year could be, thanks mostly to COVID-19. Actually, many scientists and at least a few governmental smart people have been saying that a pandemic of this sort was out there in our future, just waiting for the right moment to launch itself. But like “The Big One”—the monster earthquake they tell us will someday flatten California—it was just out there, over the horizon, a hypothetical we didn’t think about too much until it crashed our party.

So here we are, in a season that just keeps getting weirder. The world of bike racing is a tiny bump on the big pickle this year has turned out to be. But because enough of us care about it, those in charge have worked hard to provide us with the challenges and spectacle we had been missing, with most of the marquee attractions shoe-horned into the last few months of the year. The Tour de France, normally in mid-July, was moved to early September, displacing the Vuelta from its traditional spot on the calendar. The Giro, normally in May, was punted all the way to October. And with not much time left ahead of winter, a slightly shortened (18-stage) Vuelta began in late October, before the Giro was even over. 

How strange it was to be trying to watch the Giro and the Vuelta at the same time! After no racing for most of the spring and summer, suddenly we had an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Last month, after the Tour, I listed a few riders lined up for the Giro who seemed to be likely favorites. I don’t know why I even attempt these quasi-predictions. I get them wrong just about every time. But at least in this case I had a lot of company: no one could have predicted the final winner and podium. No way, no how. Those pre-race favorites? It was a little like the old Agatha Christie mystery, Ten Little Indians: one by one, stage by stage, they were bumped off. 

Stage 1 was a 15-km time trial and was won by Fillipo Ganna (Ineos-Grenadiers), the ITT World Champion. Second was an unheralded and more-or-less unknown Portugeuse neo-pro, Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-Quickstep). Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez crashed out near the second time check when his twitchy time trial bike got away from him. He was the first of the favorites to be bumped off.

Ganna said he would be keeping the maglia rosa warm for his team leader Geraint Thomas. But on Stage 3 Thomas crashed out. He was taken down by a loose water bottle under his wheel in the middle of the pack. He struggled to the stage finish but was later found to have a fractured pelvis and his Giro was over. That’s the second of the pre-race favorites gone and perhaps the rider most likely to have won it all. His departure was significant not only because he was gone but because of how it changed the race tactics for the powerful Ineos team. More about that later. 

While most of the press was focused on Thomas’ demise, Joao Almeida finished that stage with the other presumptive GC favorites and, thanks to his good time in the ITT, took over the leader’s jersey. I don’t think anyone expected Almeida to win the Giro—he didn’t—but he did a yeoman job of protecting the jersey, through hilltop finishes, sprint finishes, a time trial, and even at least one crash, all the way through Stage 18. 16 days in pink for a kid in his first big tour.

The next of the ten little indians to be bumped off was Michelton-Scott’s Simon Yates. He was not taken out in a crash but was yet one more of the millions around the world to test positive for the virus. The test result came back between Stages 7 and 8. So say goodbye to another favorite and hello to a new player at the Giro: the virus. Many riders and staff were tested on the first rest day between Stages 9 and 10 and the results were not good. Seven positive tests, including ones for Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma)—yet another pre-race favorite—and Michael Matthews (Sunweb). That precipitated the withdrawals of the entire Jumbo-Visma and Michelton-Scott teams.

At that point the entire Giro was hanging by a thread, with many arguing to call it off immediately. But the organizers dug in their heels and vowed to continue. In the end, their confidence—or their stubbornness—was rewarded and there weren’t any more crucial COVID problems for the duration.

Meanwhile, the race slogged along…

Almeida remained in first place and the supposed GC big shots were not doing much to distinguish themselves. Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) was in second, within a minute. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) was still in the hunt at about two minutes. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) was more than four minutes back and pretty much toast. That accounts for all that was left of the pre-race faves. Based on past palmarés, one of these guys was going to eventually take control and get things sorted out. But this wasn’t about past performances; it was about what you can do right now, today, in this Giro. It was time for another episode of New Kids on the Block.

Stage 15—a mountaintop finish—was won by Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos) with Wilco Kelderman two seconds behind and Wilco’s faithful mountain lieutenant, Jai Hindley, another two seconds back. Almeida dug deep to limit his losses and came in 37 seconds back. He kept his maglia rosa but his lead was down to :15. Hindley moved up to third and Geoghegan Hart to fourth. So who are these guys…the Australian Hindley and the Brit Geoghegan Hart? The latter has made a few splashes in the past couple of years—most notably in last year’s Tour. But I have to admit I had never heard of Hindley until this stage finish.

Geoghegan Hart’s steady climb up the standings dates back to the departure of his team leader Geraint Thomas after Stage 3. His assignment had been to work for Thomas but with his leader gone he was off the leash and free to move about the peloton. Ineos has been a strong team for a long time. They didn’t just fold up when Thomas tanked. They recalibrated their assets and options and carried on. He picked up a little time with an attack on Stage 9. Did a respectable time trial on Stage 14. And then popped this big surprise on Stage 15. Hindley’s presence near the top was due to his good work in aid of team leader Kelderman…escorting him up all the hills and simply hanging around at the front each day, mostly unnoticed.

Nothing much changed with another mountain finish on Stage 16. All the top guns finished together. The big changes came with the next mountain finish, Stage 18. This included the ascent of the massive Stelvio before a descent to the valley and one last climb to Lago di Cancano. On the ginormous climb over the Stelvio, Geoghegan Hart and Hindley showed their youthful heels to all the other hopefuls. Sunweb’s game plan for the day was for Hindley not to support his team leader Kelderman but instead to shadow Geoghegan Hart. So the two new kids dropped Kelderman and set off on their own mano a mano race to the finish with Kelderman chugging along behind, solo, for many, many miles. (Important footnote: Goehegan Hart’s Ineos teammate Rohan Dennis was with them and helped to power them away from any chasers. He faded right at the end but until then he was the engine driving their little train.) Hindley won the two-up sprint and—eventually—Kelderman soldiered in close enough behind them to finally take the leader’s jersey away from the plucky Almeida. Hindley was now in second and Geoghegan Hart in third.

HartStage 20 was the last summit finish and Stage 21—the last day—was a third time trial. The pandemic played a role once again on Stage 20: the route was supposed to venture over the border into France but with new cases spiking, France said, “Sorry, go away!” So the route was hastily reconfigured to stay in Italy. It was probably not quite as hard as the original stage would have been but was still pretty tough. In a repeat of the scenario on Stage 18, Rohan Dennis powered his teammate Geoghegan Hart and Hindley up and away from everyone else—including Kelderman—and delivered them to within 1500 meters of the finish line in Sestriere. Kelderman couldn’t keep up and eventually finished 1:35 down. This time Geoghegan Hart won the two-up sprint and with the bonus seconds factored in, he and Hindley ended up in an exact tie…first time in the long history of Grand Tours that two riders have entered the final stage exactly tied. Wow!

Filippo Ganna won the final time trial to complete a TT trifecta—winning all three of them—and Geoghegan Hart finished :39 ahead of Hindley to win the overall. Kelderman ended up third at 1:29 and the never-give-up Almeida was fourth. Vinnie Nibali ended up seventh and admitted there has been a “generational change” in recent races…graciously saluting the new kids and implicitly suggesting his era may be over. So…yet another Grand Tour victory for the Ineos team and yet another Grand Tour victory for a British rider. How many teams could lose their team leader on Stage 3 and still go home with the big prize? And with a rider who’s never come within a sniff of a Grand Tour podium before? This goes a long way to salvaging the season for Ineos after their big meltdown at the Tour.

But wait…there’s more…

On October 20, while Jan Tratnik was winning Stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia, Primoz Roglič was winning Stage 1 of the Vuelta a España. That right there is a first: two Grand Tours going on simultaneously. What was also at least a little unusual was having a Grand Tour begin with a fairly substantial uphill finish on the first stage. (Actually, there was a brief, mildly downhill run to the line but that was preceded by a husky Cat 1 climb: 2.5 miles at 9%.) But in this goofy season, nothing is normal. The Vuelta has become known for its hilly profiles and in that respect this one ran true to form: seven significant uphill finishes. plus a time trial with a nasty uphill finish, plus at least two more “sprint” stages that had short but punchy uphill finishes…all crammed into just 18 stages.

With two Grand Tours going on at the same time and with both of them following close on the heels of the Tour de France, there were opportunities for other riders—new riders perhaps—to grab some of the glory. But there were Tour riders doubling up here as well, most notably Primoz Roglič for Jumbo-Visma and Richard Carapaz for Ineos-Grenadiers. Each was supported by a strong team. Roglič had most of his Tour team back, including Tom Dumoulin and Sepp Kuss. Carapaz had Chris Froome as his wing man. Initially it was assumed that Froome would be the team leader but in the event, he was still recovering from his terrible crash of 2019 and was not really a factor except as a rather high-priced domestique for Carapaz. Other likely faves? Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Dan Martin (Israel-Start-Up Nation). With hindsight, we can say we should have included Hugh Carthy (EF) as a major player. We didn’t expect that one.

So Roglič took Stage 1 and the leader’s jersey. He kinda, sorta had the notion of keeping it throughout the tour but it didn’t quite work out that way. He did end up wearing it on the last day in Madrid but he lost it a couple of times and had to win it back. Along the way he won four stages and, most of the time, looked like the strongest rider on the strongest team. But as we learned about this very good rider at the Tour, he is human and his team is not invincible. To my mind, the fact that he is not in fact bestriding the world like a colossus makes his triumphs all the more impressive.

Roglič was followed over the line on that first stage by all the premier GC riders. Thanks to bonus seconds, he led Carapaz by :05 and the rest by a little more. On Stage 2 he finished second, winning a bunch sprint among those same GC favorites, grabbing a few more bonus seconds to pad his lead to :09 over Martin and :11 over Carapaz. (The old adage that every second counts is worth remembering here.) Martin, Roglič, and Carapaz finished 1-2-3 on the next stage—an uphill finish—and with the various bonus seconds it was now Roglič first with Martin at :05 and Carapaz at :13. Mas and Carthy were just a few more seconds back.

It was status quo through a couple of sprint and breakaway stages but things got shaken up a bit on Stage 6, another big summit finish, this one in the rain. Roglič and his whole team managed to make a hash out of the simple task of getting rain jackets from their team car and putting them on, and while they were thus occupied, dropping off the lead, Carapaz and his always lethal Ineos team attacked, bombing down a rain-slick descent at scary speeds. By the time Roglič and teammates finally managed to get back on—near the base of the final climb—they were half-exhausted and didn’t have a lot of juice for that last big ascent. Behind the remnants of a breakaway, Martin, Carthy, and Carapaz all took time out of Roglič and when they were all back in their buses, drying off, it was Carapaz first, Carthy at :18, Martin at :20, and Roglič clear down to fourth at :30. Mas and Valverde lost even more time.

Roglič got some of that back on Stage 8, the next of the big summit finishes, winning the stage with Carapaz, Martin, Carthy, and Mas struggling and straggling in a little way behind. With bonus seconds added in, it was now Carapaz first, Roglič at :13, Martin at :28, Carthy at :44, and Mas at an increasingly distant 1:54.

The Stage 10 finish was one of my favorite moments of the Vuelta. It was officially listed as a sprint finish but this was one of those “sprints” that had a wicked stinger in its tail: the final mile was uphill at almost 7%! Roglič won another stage here and he did it with both good legs and smarts. Midway up that last ramp, Carapaz launched an attack…put himself out in the wind on his own and pretty much blew himself up well before the line. Meanwhile, Roglič stayed cozy in the pack—near the front but not on the front—until that last possible moment and then showed an impressive sprint out of the group to take it. Carapaz ended up three seconds back, so with Roglič’s 10-second bonus for winning, the two ended up equal on time. Martin and Carthy ended up at :25 and :51 respectively. Frankly, it didn’t look like a full three-second gap to me but that’s how the commissaires called it. Whatever the timing, it was a bold and brassy move and it paid off.

Roglic Now we arrive at the queen stage of this or any other Vuelta: the super steep finish atop Alto de l’Angrilu, frequently called the most feared climb in the world of pro cycling…many pitches on the high side of 20%. We’ve seen it in past Vueltas about every other year but this one felt a little different because of a very sparse crowd on those nasty walls (thanks to Covid restrictions). Usually it’s an insane mosh pit like Alpe d’Huez. Crowds or no, the road was still there and still brutal to the nth degree. Here again, Roglič looked vaguely like a mere mortal. First Mas attacked and when the other top guns saw that Roglič was laboring a bit they all smelled blood and went after him. Carapaz attacked and then Carthy came around them all and made the defining move, stomping along in his big ring on a freakin’ 20% wall. He won the stage, with Mas and Carapaz at :16 and Roglič, Kuss, and Martin at :26. So Carapaz went back into the lead over Roglič by :10, with Carthy now at :32 and Martin at :35. What saved Roglič’s Vuelta was Sepp Kuss pacing him up those last, nastiest pitches. Kuss could have probably won the stage…his climbing up to that point looked so effortless. But he stuck with his team leader and shepherded him home.

After a rest day they had their only time trial: 21 miles with the final mile uphill at 9%. On paper at least, Roglič was the best time trialer in the field. But that course had a spooky resemblance to the final time trial at the Tour de France, the one that was his undoing. However, this time he did not have to contend with Tadej Pogačar and he won it, one slim second ahead of young American Will Barta. Carthy was the next GC hopeful at :25 and Carapaz was at :49. So now the standings were Roglič first, Carapaz at :39 and Carthy at :47.

In theory, the only remaining decisive stage would be 17, the last big summit finish before the final promenade into Madrid. But Roglič pulled a little rabbit out of his hat on Stage 16, a hilly stage but with a flat, fast finish that would likely end in a bunch sprint. And so it did, although some of the most hardcore sprinters were culled from the herd by the hills. Nevertheless, it was a fast field sprint and Roglič snuck in amongst the sprinters and took second place, gaining a few more bonus seconds. You have to love that kind of racing: finding opportunities to pip your competitors and gain a little advantage. It’s the kind of thing I imagine Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault would have done.

And in the end, on that last summit finish to la Covatilla, he needed just about all the seconds he had in hand (:45). Although this final climb was not as monstrous as Angliru, it was still a big, hard-ass climb and the way things played out among the chief protagonists was similar. A breakaway would scoop up any bonus seconds while down the hill the same top riders were measuring each other until, with about two miles to go, Carthy and Carapaz started attacking Roglič. Kuss was still there, as well as Mas. But for once Kuss didn’t have the legs to pull Roglič to the finish. Carapaz made the strongest move and went clear, just hammering his brains out to try and erase Roglič’s :45 advantage. He almost did it but Roglič buried himself to hang on and came across the line :21 behind Carapaz, leaving his lead at a meager :24. He bent but he did not break.

Final podium: Roglič first, Carapaz at :24 and Carthy —the real revelation of this Vuelta—at :47. Roglič was the reigning champion at the Vuelta and he defended the maillot rojo well. He didn’t crush the competition but he was just a little bit better when it mattered. 

Think back to all the places were a few seconds changed hands among the eventual podium. Roglič’s biggest single haul was his :49 over Carapaz in the time trial. Aside from that it was just nibbles here and there, plus or minus bonus seconds. Sooo close! Then again, his winning margin of :24 was only :15 less than Tao Geoghegan Hart’s winning margin at the Giro. Lots of close racing this year. That’s the way we like it. 

After all the trouble and turmoil of this grim year, it was amazing that the riders and teams and promoters managed to pull off all three of the year’s great stage races. We’ve been through a grinder lately, so it was nice to finally have these moments of high drama in our favorite sport to divert us from our personal and collective difficulties. Who knows what next year will bring? For now, we can be happy with what we’ve been given.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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