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 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2021

Three in a row

Primoz Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) got to wear a funny Spanish hat on the final podium of this year’s Vuelta a España and that seems appropriate as this was his Vuelta hat trick: three in a row. This was by far his most dominant victory. He beat Alejandro Valverde by a couple of minutes in 2019 and Richard Carapaz by a slim :24 last year…this year he cruised to a comfortable margin of almost five minutes over Enric Mas (Movistar).

He won the opening time trial on the first day and the final time trial on the last day. He won four stages and was second on four more, in almost all cases putting time into all his serious rivals. It was a master class in superb riding and tactical control. with his team performing well throughout. They weren’t crushingly dominant but they did enough to keep things where they wanted them every day. Sepp Kuss was usually there as his last, best mountain lieutenant (finishing a commendable 8th overall himself). One measure of their competence—or perhaps their good fortune—is that they still had all nine riders on the road at the finish, whereas Movistar lost four riders—including Valverde and Lopez—and Ineos lost three—including Carapaz.

PrimozThose were the two teams—Movistar and Ineos—that, at least in theory, were going to pose the biggest challenge to Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma team this year. Each had a three-pronged tag-team of favorites to throw against him. Movistar had Mas, Valverde, and Miguel Angel Lopez. Ineos had Egan Bernal, Adam Yates, and Carapaz. Those are some heavy hitters and, again, in theory, any of them might have been able to win it all. Against that swarming hoard, Jumbo-Visma put all its eggs in one basket: Primoz Roglič. Their confidence in him was justified.

When all the dust had settled, only one Movistar star was still standing: Enric Mas at that rather distant 4:42 2nd place. Valverde crashed out on Stage 7. It was the saddest thing. He was lying 4th after Stage 6 and looking good. Have you seen his crash? I’ve watched the replays a few times…descending through a fast right-hand corner and his front wheel catches a tiny flaw in an otherwise beautifully paved road. You see the wheel give the tiniest dink as it hits that blip and then he’s gone. Such a little thing! I have to wonder if that marks the end of his long, illustrious career at the Vuelta. I hope not. But at age 42…

It also begs the question: how would Movistar’s tactics have changed had he remained in the race? I doubt he would have won but he would have served as a stabilizing influence on his younger teammates. That’s especially relevant because of how Lopez flamed out in the most spectacular and awkward way on Stage 20, while in 3rd place. What happened has been widely viewed and discussed. In simplest terms, on a stage with a ruggedly up-and-down profile, he missed the crucial selection when the other top riders took off. He seemed to hesitate and by the time he decided to chase, it was essentially too late. The gap was too big and he had no one to help him. So he was isolated and frustrated and had himself a very public and unfortunate little meltdown, one stage from the end of the stage race. After being yelled at by his Directeur Sportif, he more-or-less said, “You don’t like how I’m riding? Fine…I quit!” And quit he did, pulling over and climbing in the team car. It was a disastrous moment for the team and a stain on the career of this brilliant young rider. It will take some getting over.

I wonder how it might have been different if wise old vet Valverde had been there to support his struggling young teammate. I have to think he would have calmed him down and helped him carry on and make the best of things. But because of one tiny flaw in the pavement, he wasn’t there to help.

Ineos had rather mixed results as well. Adam Yates finished 4th at 9:06 and Bernal 6th at 13:27. Respectable results but not remotely close to contending for the GC. Both were active throughout, with one or the other launching attacks almost any time the roads tilted uphill. But in every case, Roglič covered their attacks and then rode away from them. His counterattacks were seldom flamboyant. He seemed to say, “That’s what you got? Okay, I’ll see your bet and raise you…” and would just motor off up the road, sometimes sitting, sometimes out of the saddle, but always looking composed and almost casual in his control of things. Carapaz, who gave him such a tussle last year, withdrew midway through the race, claiming to be utterly exhausted. He worked his butt off for his 3rd place at the Tour so it’s not surprising that he might fizzle out at the Vuelta. We could second-guess the Ineos game plan of entering him at all.

Under the heading of Revelations, we have to tip the old chapeau to the Bahrain Victorious team, with Australian Jack Haig finishing 3rd—his first Grand Tour podium—and his teammate Gino Mader in 5th. Haig is 27 so not exactly a neo-pro. This was his eighth Grand Tour with his best results 21st and 19th at the ’17 and ’18 Vueltas. He broke his collarbone early in this year’s Tour and has been recuperating since. He has had a few decent results elsewhere. A 4th and 7th overall at Paris-Nice and a 5th at this year’s Dauphiné. But this podium step represents a great leap forward for him.

One little puzzle—for me anyway—was the non-appearance of Tadej Pogačar. I said last month that he was planning to enter the Vuelta. I thought that was a done deal. Maybe I got that wrong or perhaps his team changed their plans. Now that Roglič has dominated the Vuelta almost as comfortably and casually as Pogačar dominated the Tour, we are still left hanging as to which of them is the top dawg. The only joker in the deck is that Pogačar is only 22 and Roglič will turn 32 next month. Most of a decade between them. All else being equal, Roglič has to be near the zenith of his career…a few more good years, maybe…while Pogačar is just hitting his stride.

I like them both. Not only are they extraordinary bike racers, they both appear to be genuinely nice guys. Cheerful and humorous and without any bully-boy attitudes. Doubtless they both know how good they are but so far that hasn’t seemed to translate into any sort of arrogance or aloofness. I’m already looking forward to how they will race and conduct themselves next year.

As seems to be the case lately, the Vuelta organizers did an outstanding job with their parcourse. They had at least eight uphill finishes with two or three more that had little uphill challenges late. Some of those final ascents were absurdly steep and long…brutal. (Pity the poor sprinters!). The organizers and the riders were fortunate with the weather…mostly. Offhand, I can only recall one seriously rainy day. But there were several days that were wicked hot…well over 100.

There weren’t all that many significant crashes. Valverde’s was the most telling. Roglič hit the deck twice but neither of them seemed to beat him up too bad, nor cost him much time. All in a day’s work for the pros. Perhaps the most amazing crash was that of Jay Vine on Stage 14. Up in the day’s break, he goes back to his team car, gets a little too close to the car and tangles with it. Suddenly he’s sliding along the ground at maybe 30 mph. It looked terrible. He lay on the ground for what seemed like forever as the medical team worked on him. That’s the last we see of him until almost the top of the final climb and—WTF?—here comes Jay, jersey, shorts, and number bibs in shreds, chasing back through the break and finally duking it out for 2nd place on the stage. (He finished a close 3rd.) That’s the best recovery I’ve seen in a bike race in years!

Well! There you go. The third Grand Tour of the season and what a grand race it was, with a very deserving winner. We still have the rag-tag assortment of season-ending races to go before we have to back away from our TVs or monitors and find some other way to be entertained over the winter. But it has been a good year…much closer to normal than 2020. Thank goodness for that.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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