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Vuelta a Espana

Attrition starting to take its toll at Vuelta a España

Riders like Mikel Landa and Richard Carapaz move backwards on a day Hugh Carthy and Alejandro Valverde leave early.

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TIBI, Spain (VN) — Desgaste, as the Spanish call the wear and tear of racing, is starting to add up a week into the Vuelta a España.

The attrition of seven days of wind and heat is beginning to take its inevitable and collective toll. Any grand tour is about hanging on, but the elastic is snapping quite early for a few big names so far into this Vuelta.

Friday’s 152km, six-climb stage saw pre-race favorites Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) both cede another half-minute to the race leader, and big names Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) exited.

And there are still two weeks to go.

“I don’t know how things will go Sunday, but we’re sure it will be very hard,” said Movistar’s Miguel Ángel López. “The fatigue is noticeable, and you saw it that there were not a lot of attacks on the final climb. Right now, the sensations are good, and we’ll see how things go.”

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With a sprinter’s stage set for Saturday’s finale along Murcia’s Mar Menor, the next big battle will be Sunday at the Alto de Velefique, a hard, twisting summit finale at the sharp end of a stage across Spain’s desert-like terrain of Andalucía.

“Everyone is starting to feel the impact of the heat,” said Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) at the start in Gandía. “And every stage has been very windy. So far, most of the days have seen headwinds, but there’s still a lot of tension in the bunch every day. You can see it adding up.”

Fatigue setting in early in grueling Vuelta

These grinding day-in, day-out stages serve to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It usually takes another week or so of racing before the degaste really starts to set in at the Vuelta, but after a busy calendar packed with the Tour der France and days later the Olympic Games — and not to mention the ongoing tension of COVID-19 — race-weary legs are showing up earlier than expected.

Friday’s stage was frenetic from the start with riders fighting to ride into the breakaway, with the odds favoring a break to stick in the multi-climb stage.

Behind, in the GC group, there was a flurry of counter-attacks in the final climbs, only to see things come back a bit under control following Valverde’s dramatic crash and exit.

Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) paced the favorites to the summit, with seven riders pacing through with the red jersey group. No one could muster anything resembling attacks, and riders struggled in their wake.

Three teams are emerging as the strongest: Jumbo-Visma, Ineos Grenadiers, and Movistar.

That’s no big surprise, but what that means is,  — at least for now — there doesn’t appear a rider poised to break the triumvirate’s tightening stranglehold on the GC.

Also read: Roglič prepares for onslaught 

Carthy abandoned mid-way through the stage, and though there’s no official confirmation yet from the team as to why, the British rider was struggling early to match his searing form of 2020 that saw him win a stage and finish third overall.

Valverde crashed out after striking a small pothole in the road on a descent and sliding into a ravine. The 41-year-old tried to push on, but later succumbed to his injuries. X-rays later revealed no broken bones.

How hard was the pace Friday, with soaring temperatures, wind, and suffocating humidity? One rider was time cut, and three others did not finish.

Sepp Kuss climbs back into top-10

Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič looks rock solid right now, and with teammate Sepp Kuss bounding back into the top-10 after riding in the day’s main breakaway to finish fourth, the stage gives the team even more options to fend off Movistar and Ineos Grenadiers.

“It was super hot and we went already from the first climb all-out and that was long for me. I was just waiting to come over the finish” Roglič said. “We saw quite some action. Also in the next days, we can expect the same, that the teams with more contenders will play and attack a little more.”

Also read: Kuss climbs into KoM jersey

Kuss bolted into the break, regaining much of the time he lost the other day on Picón Blanco, and climbed up 19 spots on GC to settle into eighth at 59 seconds back.

The Colorado climber will remain a faithful helper to Roglič, yet his presence in the top-10 could prove useful as Jumbo-Visma prepares for inevitable aggression from Ineos Grenadiers and Movistar.

Bernal, who so far is hanging in there at 41 seconds behind Roglič, knows they will have to attack sooner or later.

“The only thing we can do is be there in the end on the final climb, and hope we have good legs and hope he has bad legs,” Bernal said of a string of upcoming summit finales. “We all know the final time trial [in Galicia] is in his favor, so we have to try to look for our moment.”

Fatigue is not selective and can hit anyone at any time.

Roglič is earning a reputation of fading in the waning days of grand tours and will be careful about being too careless about his efforts. Right now, he’s in firm control, but there are still two weeks to go.

As Bernal said the other day, anything can still happen in this Vuelta. There are still 12 riders within two minutes of Roglič.

“We’re at the end of the season, anything can happen,” Bernal said. “There’s a lot of fatigue and the heat, and anything can happen still in this race.”