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MADRID (VN) — Thursday’s 18th stage of the Vuelta a España has ambush written all over it.
The route comprises four category one climbs, all stacked up over narrow, lumpy roads in the stony mountains north of Madrid. As Alejandro Valverde said, the mountains of Madrid have buried many riders��� Vuelta dreams.
Many Vuelta’s have been decided in the mountains north of Madrid, and the expectation is growing that Thursday could turn the race upside down. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) holds a commanding lead in the overall, 2:24 ahead of Nairo Quintana. But, as Wednesday’s windy stage across Spain’s meseta confirmed, grand tours are won and lost in the third week.
The big question going into Thursday is whether or not Roglic could suffer the same fate as Tom Dumoulin did back in 2015.
That prospect has been on the tongues of everyone since Roglic took the red jersey. Some are expecting Roglic to collapse in similar fashion as the Dutch start did on the final hard day back in 2015.
Back in 2015, Dumoulin was the surprise red jersey-holder on the penultimate stage of that year’s Vuelta. He held a slender six-second lead on Fabio Aru, the then-precocious Italian on the Astana team, as the Vuelta raced its final battle on a very similar course as what lies in store Thursday.
Everyone ganged up on the untested Dumoulin, with Astana and a collection of Spanish climbers attacking with nothing-to-lose abandon. Racing without much support, Dumoulin — then with Giant-Alpecin — lost contact and ended up ceding 7:30 on the day. Dumoulin rode into Madrid sixth overall, a result that later served to push him toward future grand tour success.
Could the same scenario unfold for Roglic in the mountains lining Madrid?
We asked Addy Engels, a former pro who was Dumoulin’s sport director in 2015. He’s now in the lead car with Jumbo-Visma, working hard to assure that the outcome of this Vuelta is very different from 2015.
First off, Engels said it’s wrong to compare Dumoulin’s situation from 2015 to what’s unfolding now in the Vuelta.
“The comparison is the stage,” Engel said of speculation of Thursday’s stage. “It’s not exactly the same stage. The climbs are the same, so it’s very close. The situation is very different.”
Engels is right. Dumoulin was six seconds ahead of Aru in 2015. Roglic, even after the fireworks Wednesday, will start 2:24 ahead of Nairo Quintana. That’s a significant difference.
“The gap is very different,” Engels insisted. “With Aru it was 6 seconds, with Primoz, it’s way bigger.”
The differences don’t end there. Thursday’s stage might be eerily similar to what Aru and Dumoulin raced in 2015, but it was the Vuelta’s penultimate stage that year. This year, there’s still another mountain stage on the horizon Saturday.
Will riders be holding back Thursday? Probably not. These days, everyone has to race 100 percent every day. And with the podium spots suddenly over-crowded with the revival of Quintana, UAE-Emirates and Astana will be moving the race. The race is “on” for the podium, not targeting Roglic. That’s very different than in 2015. Roglic can mark wheels. In 2015, Dumoulin was the target.
“We now have the ‘luxury’ that Primoz is so far the strongest rider in the race, and we have one of the strongest teams,” Engels said. “That’s the difference.”
In fact, Engels is directing a much deeper and more experienced team in the 2019 Vuelta than what he had in 2015. Dumoulin was not expected to be racing for the overall, so the then-Giant-Alpecin brought a team built for speed. Dumoulin was initially only targeting the time trials, and stretching his grand tour legs for the first time.
“We started that Vuelta to win stages with [John] Degenkolb in the sprints,” Engels said of 2015. “Our team here is much stronger. We knew with Tom, that when there was a climb, he would be isolated immediately.”
The riders and their respective career crossroads are very dissimilar. Roglic is September 2019 is a different rider than Dumoulin in 2015. Roglic has already been through the fire at the Giro, so he’s handling this Vuelta with much more aplomb. In 2015, no one had put Dumoulin as a grand tour challenger.
Yet Engels is the first to admit, at least from the front-row seat in the team car, the best-laid plans don’t always pan out.
In May, Engels could only watch as Roglic struggled at the Giro d’Italia, ending up third overall in a race that he was heavily favored to win.
So far, Roglic has raced a near-flawless Vuelta. But Engels, a former pro before becoming a director, knows very well that the race is decided on the road, not from the team car.
“You can think of all the tactics – every DS here can dream up tactics – but to have a tactic, you need the riders,” he said. “We had to pray that Tom was able to follow Aru. That was the only thing he had to do, but in the end, he was not able to.
“At this Vuelta, we have a very strong team here, perhaps the strongest. And we have, until now, the strongest rider.”
Thursday likely won’t decide this Vuelta. Saturday packs more vertical than any stage of the entire race packed with climbs. The Vuelta ends Sunday in Madrid. Everyone racing here knows that.