Vuelta a Espana

Analysis: How the GC stars fared in the Vuelta a España’s fight up La Covatilla

Saturday's stage 17 to La Covatilla produced a thrilling battle between the GC stars. Here's how the final mountaintop finish of this year's Vuelta a España shook up the standings.

The 2020 Vuelta a España saved the best for (almost) last.

The most thrilling GC battle of this year’s race occurred during Saturday’s 17th stage, which finished atop the Alto de Covatilla climb one day before Sunday’s Madrid finale. Richard Carapaz attacked, Jumbo-Visma crumbled, Movistar raced with curious tactics, and Primož Roglič was pushed to the brink, only to save his Vuelta lead by 24 seconds.

I suggest you rewatch this one, because it was a fantastic battle, and one we will be talking about for years to come. Here’s how the GC stars fared in the dramatic fight to La Covatilla.

Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)

Roglič was dropped on the final push to the line by Carapaz and Carthy, but he rebounded and saved his overall victory. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: As he did one week ago on the Alto de l’Angliru, Primož Roglič bent but did not break on the final climb to La Covatilla when his chief rivals hit him again and again. Unlike on the Angliru climb, where Roglič had Sepp Kuss to pace him through the finale, the Slovenian was mostly isolated in the final battle on La Covatilla, and had to do the work himself, with some help from teammate Lennard Hofstede, as well as from Team Movistar. Roglič lacked the explosive accelerations to match Richard Carapaz and Hugh Carthy, and one has to wonder if this Vuelta would have slipped from his fingers had those two started their aggression further down the climb. Alas, we’ll never know.

Roglič did what he needed to do to win the overall. He ceded 21 seconds to Carapaz — most of the time he gained on Carapaz in the stage 13 ITT. But it was enough to win the overall at the Vuelta a España and defend his title from 2019.

This is an enormous result for Roglič and Jumbo-Visma, simply because the alternative — losing the whole thing on the final decisive stage — would have been a historic disaster, given his agony at the Tour. The mental and emotional anguish of losing two grand tours in this manner in one year might haunt him for the rest of his career. There was no choking today for Roglič. While he looked tired, he did what he needed to do to win.

The bad news: There’s no real bad news here, as Roglič won the overall. The only caveat I can see here is that we will always wonder if Roglič could have held the lead in a true three-week race. To be fair, the 2020 Vuelta ended at the exact perfect time for Jumbo-Visma and Primož Roglic. Jumbo was out of gas. Kuss was out of gas. Roglič looked to be very nearly out of gas. Carapaz and Carthy, meanwhile, looked strong and ready to attack. Had the race tackled three more mountain stages, the outcome may have been different.

Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers)

Carapaz attacked and finally dropped Roglič, only to see his move come up short at the line. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The good news: Carapaz flew like a rocket on the final climb and clawed back a full 21 seconds, but he came up just short of overall victory. He is going to lose the tightest GC battle at a grand tour since the 2012 Giro d’Italia, and the closest Vuelta a España since 1984. In his first opportunity as an unquestioned GC leader, Carapaz confirmed his place in the tight circle of grand tour stars for this generation. He nearly won this race by taking on a superior team and one of the strongest grand tour riders of the last 10 years. Even though it is a loss, this result should be a huge shot of confidence for Carapaz. He was the race’s aggressor in the mountains, and had his ITT been just a few seconds stronger, he would have won the whole thing.

The bad news: As mentioned above, we will always play the ‘what if’ game with Carapaz at the 2020 Vuelta a España due to the truncated nature of this race. He seemed to be the strongest GC rider on a very tough stage 17, and one has to wonder if he could have won the overall had this race featured three more tough days in the mountains.

Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling)

Carthy confirmed his place as a rising grand tour racer by securing third place overall. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The good news: Carthy dropped Roglič on the final push to the line, grabbing six more seconds on the Slovenian, and more importantly, he solidified his third place overall in the race. I don’t think anybody came into this Vuelta picking Hugh Carthy to land on the podium, so this result is a huge step forward for him.

Every year we see one or two riders step into the ‘contender’ circle in grand tour racing, and some of these steps forward are due to circumstance, while others are legitimate leaps forward. I think we can put Hugh Carthy in the latter category. He rode a measured and smart race, and his impressive performance in the stage 13 ITT turned as many heads as his stage win atop the Alto de l’Angliru. The cycling world knew that Carthy was a top climber — now, there is proof that he has the focus and discipline to race for a top spot in a mountainous grand tour.

Carthy’s emergence comes at a perfect moment for EF Pro Cycling, as the squad bids adieu to Daniel Martinez and Michael Woods, and Rigoberto Urán gets another year older. There’s a realistic scenario in 2021 that sees Carthy co-lead this squad at the Tour de France.

The bad news: Like Carapaz, one has to wonder if Carthy could have attacked his way into second or even first place had the race featured one or two more summit finishes.

Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation)

Martin was suffering on the final climb and was dropped once the attacks started. The Irishman dug deep to hold onto fourth place overall. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: Wow, did you see Dan Martin’s suffer face on that final climb? Martin looked to be in the hurt box long before the big attacks kicked off, so it was no surprise to see him dropped. Kudos to the Irishman for rallying to preserve fourth place overall, despite a big charge from Enric Mas to unseat him. Martin came into the stage with 1:41 on Mas and he finishes it 52 seconds up.

Martin won’t get that podium place he so desperately wanted, but his fourth overall should be viewed as a success. It’s his best finish ever in a grand tour, and it is proof that Israel Start-Up Nation can ride for GC. Martin won a stage and defended a top spot for the entire race, and both accomplishments seemed beyond what ISN could do heading into this season. The team should take some valuable lessons from Martin’s GC run as it builds around Chris Froome for 2021.

The bad news: Martin simply ran out of gas on that final climb. Like Roglič, he seemed to benefit from a 18-stage race, and it’s likely that three more hard days would have doomed his overall run.

Enric Mas (Team Movistar)

Mas was among the strongest climbers in this year’s race, but his fifth place overall could likely have been higher. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The good news: Mas is going to end up fifth place in this Vuelta, which is where he finished in the Tour de France. That, alone, is an achievement, even if it feels somewhat underwhelming given the strength of his Movistar squad, and the pressure placed on the home team to perform at the Vuelta. Mas was strong on La Covatilla, and it was his move that helped draw out Carapaz’s decisive attack. Yet the Spaniard hesitated when the move went, and that could have cost him some seconds.

The bad news: Enric Mas was probably the fourth-strongest rider at this Vuelta, but he is going to end up fifth place overall. Credit Dan Martin and Israel Start-Up Nation for riding a smart and aggressive race to hold fourth place, despite Mas and Movistar trying at every turn to unseat him. Movistar pummeled the peloton all day on Saturday, and the team was obviously hoping to boost Mas into the fourth-place spot, or to help him win the stage. So, for him to come up short, and then be accused of aiding Roglič, is a somewhat embarrassing, if not also somewhat predictable, outcome for the Spanish squad.

David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ)

Gaudu won two stages and finished 8th place overall, a sign that he’s ready for grand tour leadership. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: Gaudu was a huge winner on Saturday as he won the stage — his second of the race — and vaulted from 11th place into 8th place in the GC standings, jumping past Felix Grossschartner, Aleksandr Vlasov, and Alejandro Valverde in the standings. This is a huge turn of events, considering Gaudu’s GC placings throughout the race. He lost minutes in the opening two stages, and then started to ride consistently in the front group, hunting for stages and looking to ride with the top racers. Along the way he took his first grand tour stage win on stage 11, and then made the daylong breakaway on Saturday, only to drop Ion Izaguirre on the final push to the line.

This result signifies that Gaudu is ready to lead a grand tour squad and ride for GC. With Thibaut Pinot the squad’s man for the Tour de France, perhaps it is time for Gaudu to get the nod for the Vuelta or Giro d’Italia in 2021.

 — The bad news: Had Gaudu not lost more than three minutes on stages 1 and 2, he would have been a contender for the race’s top-5.

David de la Cruz (UAE-Team Emirates)

De la Cruz made a huge push on the final mountain stage to vault into seventh place overall, thanks in part to the major effort of his teammates. Photo:  David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: De la Cruz was another huge winner on the day, finishing fourth on the stage and vaulting from 10th place overall to 7th place, 7:35 down. This accomplishment should be given to his UAE-Team Emirates squad, which made de la Cruz’ run at the top-10 its big priority throughout the stage. The squad placed de la Cruz in the day’s big breakaway alongside Ivo Oliveira and Sergio Henao, and both men drove the pace all day to try and push their teammate higher up the leaderboard. To be fair, they buried themselves to try and get de la Cruz up there.

While de la Cruz couldn’t repay them with a stage win, his 7th place finish — tying his career best from 2016 — is a team accomplishment.

The bad news: De la Cruz struggled to overcome his slow start to this Vuelta, and one wonders how he would have finished had he not ceded time in the opening two stages. For much of the race he hovered in the 12th and 13th positions, so to end up 7th place overall is a very good outcome.

Felix Großschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe)

Großschartner rode a consistent Vuelta only to lose time in the final mountain stage. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: Großschartner struggled on Saturday, ceding time on the La Covatilla climb and finishing 21st overall. He preserved his top-10 placing, which is a sign that the Austrian has the legs to ride for GC despite having a team built more for stage wins.

The bad news: There was a time in this race when Großschartner looked like a man for the top-5 overall, so to slip from 7th to 9th on the final day is setback. Like Roglič and Dan Martin, Großschartner is a guy for whom the Vuelta a España ended at the perfect moment. Großschartner was the big loser to the long-range attacks of de la Cruz and Gaudu, both of whom leapfrogged him in the overall.

Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren)

Poels has usually ridden in support of grand tour leaders, and this year he got his chance to ride for GC, finishing 6th place overall. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

The good news: During Wout Poels’ tenure as a Team Sky henchman, we wondered if the Dutchman had it in him to ride for GC. Guess what — he does. Poels held onto sixth place overall and proved that he can ride for GC in a grand tour. He struggled on Saturday, finishing in 20th place to La Covatilla in the Dan Martin group. But Poels’ consistent riding throughout the rest of the race helped him notch a high placing on GC. Even though de la Cruz and Gaudu gained huge time on his group, which contained Großschartner and others, Poels’ spot on GC was safe.

The bad news: No bad news today, Wout Poels! Time to swig some rioja and celebrate a completed season.