Vuelta a Espana

Analysis: Vuelta a España’s GC landscape takes shape after Moncalvillo battle

Roglič, Carapaz, Martin and Carthy emerged as the strongest on Wednesday and have marked themselves out as the key GC contenders ahead of a series of pivotal stages.

Wednesday’s mano-a-mano battle on the steep slopes of the Alto de Moncalvillo saw a GC shakeout that may shape the Vuelta a España for the final nine stages to come.

Primož Roglič took the top step after the race’s key GC contenders traded punch after counter-punch in the final kilometers of a bruising finale that became a prizefight among the Vuelta’s jefes.

Hugh Carthy, Dan Martin, and Jumbo-Visma climbing ace Sepp Kuss attacked first before the action came down to the two top-tier favorites, with defending champion Roglič and red jersey-wearing Richard Carapaz aiming a series of haymakers at one another. The mountaintop battle separated the wheat from the chaff in the classification pecking order with Martin, Carthy, Roglič, Carapaz and revitalized but out of the picture Aleksandr Vlasov top-5 on the top of the Alto.

There are now only 44 seconds between Carapaz, Roglič, Martin, and Carthy, and they have over one minute on nearest contender Enric Mas after Movistar’s latest tactical malfunction, with the rest of the pack nearly two minutes behind him. The leading quartet is within spitting distance of one another, and it’s all to play for after the first major GC shakeout of this Vuelta.

“The Vuelta hasn’t even started,” Carthy said after attacking early before fading to fifth on the Moncalvillo. “We’re still together with little differences.”

Wednesday’s eighth stage of the race may not have created the biggest time gaps, but on a climb that came down to a toe-to-toe display of a rider’s own strength and resilience, it illustrated who has their climbing legs strapped on ahead of three consecutive stages that will dictate this year’s Vuelta. After easier days Thursday and Friday, the race will roar back into life with two eye-watering stages in the Asturias mountains over the weekend, and then a long time trial Tuesday.

Roglič’s race unstoppable stage-winning accelerations Wednesday proved that his disaster day to Formigal on Sunday was a blip in his almost endlessly consistent 2020 form. The Slovenian vaulted himself right back onto key rival Carapaz’s wheel to now sit just 13-seconds back on GC.

“It was amazing, to be there mano-a-mano, it was a nice duel with him,” Carapaz said after the stage. “We see Roglič was very strong, and the race is still very open. I tried and the stage was still there. Roglič went too hard for me, and I tried to defend what I could.”

While Roglič and Carapaz have emerged as the two strongest in the race, the Vuelta has been marked by its wild, uncontrollable racing. With neither Ineos nor Jumbo-Visma looking as dominant as they did at the Tour de France, the door remains wide open for dark horses Carthy and Martin.

Woods took a massive pull for Carthy through the middle of the Alto de Moncalvillo climb Wednesday. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Just as Roglič has Kuss for support, Carthy has the benefit of on-form and seemingly selfless Michael Woods at his side. Having taken a stage win and being well out of contention on GC, the Canadian seemed content to ride for his British teammate, setting the tempo that shelled Chaves and Mas midway through the climb.

Although Carthy is the most unlikely of the four, the gangly Brit has little to lose riding for an EF Pro Cycling squad that lost its figurehead Daniel Martínez early in the race, and came to the Vuelta with only a loose semblance of GC ambitions.

“I’m surprised to be up there at this point in the Vuelta,” Carthy admitted Wednesday. “I attacked on the second climb, it was the right thing to do to try to take time but in the end, I lost on Carapaz, Roglič and Vlasov. I tried to ride to save time – I have to just keep trying.”

Martin may not share the YOLO freedom of Carthy as Israel Start-Up Nation’s nominated leader and with a point to prove before Chris Froome steps into the team in 2021. However, the Irishman has long made his trade through aggressive accelerations and threw the dice in characteristic style Wednesday.

“I felt good on the last climb and decided to test the other guys,” Martin said. “I paid for that effort a little in the end and when Primož attacked in the last kilometer I had no response.”

Martin, Carthy, and Carapaz all admitted that Roglič was unstoppable when he launched a series of accelerations in the closing kilometers. The Slovenian showed the ruthless, metronomic power that saw him rampage through August racing in France and 20 stages of Le Tour before being denied by that final time trial. Though Jumbo-Visma isn’t doing all the pulling like it did through the summer races, its Slovenian leader is looking as ruthless as ever.

“I always like to win,” Roglič said atop the Moncalvillo on Wednesday. “If there is a small opportunity then definitely I will take it.”

Asturias ascents, long time trial and accumulated fatigue to decide

Roglič proved he has the climbing legs Wednesday and has the upper-hand for stage 13’s TT. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Roglič, Carapaz, Carthy, and Martin now have two sprinter stages to cool their jets, and they’re going to need every bit of rest they can get ahead of two knee-cracking stages in Asturian mountains this weekend.

Stage 11 on Saturday takes in four categorized climbs before a 17-kilometer slog to the line on the Alto de la Farrapona. That’s just a warm-up for Sunday’s 109km ride packing in two Cat.3 and two Cat.1 climbs before the 25-percent slopes of the Alto de l’Angliru mountaintop finish.

While the Angliru may be one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the time gaps on Sunday may not be mountainous. When the mythical Alto was last raced in 2017, Alberto Contador beat Wout Poels and Chris Froome by 17 seconds, with four others less than 40 seconds back on them. The Vuelta’s one and only time trial on stage 13 could prove different. The flat 33.7km test looks likely to play in the hands of the big motors, with the only complication provided by a gnarly 2km, 15-percent climb to the line at the Ézaro summit.

“I think that until the Ézaro time trial the race is going to be very open,” Carthy said. “The stages in the Asturias, with the finals on the Angliru and La Farrapona, are going to put each of us in our place and will show who is fighting in this Vuelta.”

Roglič is undoubtedly the favorite against the clock and the Slovenian’s ride Wednesday may also have marked him out as the man to beat in the high mountains.

Carthy is hoping that a hectic summer season where the Jumbo-Visma leader has been on form from the Tour de l’Ain through the Tour de France, world championships, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège may lead to the stoic Roglič finally unraveling.

“Mentally, those of us who did not do the Tour at full capacity will be better in the third week,” Carthy said. “Physically, I do not know.”

Roglič was on full-tilt at the Tour while Carthy, Martin, and Carapaz abandoned their GC hopes or never harbored any to start with.

One month later, all four of them are now firmly in the picture to take victory in the final grand tour of the season.