If you had looked at the second-week stage profiles of the Vuelta a España a week ago, you never would have guessed that the major GC action would come on stages 10 and 11. With the winning breakaway up the road, Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma) surprised us all by attacking then crashing, and then winning the next day in Valdepeñas de Jaén.
Enric Mas (Team Movistar) looks stronger than ever as he leads a two-pronged Movistar attack into week 3. And seemingly in the background, Jack Haig (Bahrain-Victorious) looked to be biding his time as he targeted his first-ever grand tour podium.
This is the second week of the Vuelta a España, by the (power) numbers.
The day after the first rest day of the 2021 Vuelta, racing restarted with a bang-on breakaway. The 189km from Roquetas de Mar to Rincon de la Victoria featured just one climb – the Puerto de Almáchar (10.6km at 5 percent) – with 27km to go. As expected, a large breakaway went away containing multiple riders from Ineos Grenadiers, EF Education-Nippo, and Team DSM, including stage 7 winner Michael Storer. The young Australian went on to take his second stage win of this year’s Vuelta, but unfortunately for him, the headlines were about Primož Roglič.
The Slovenian attacked on the steepest part of the Puerto de Almáchar, while the breakaway fought for the stage win 12 minutes up the road. His teammate, Sepp Kuss, looked across to Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Team Movistar as soon as Roglič went, closely marking the red jersey’s rivals as the peloton exploded.
We don’t often see attacks as explosive and powerful as this – Jumbo-Visma had been riding easy all day, and so the peloton was relatively fresh as the bottom of the final climb. Kuss stayed on the wheels of rival teams, and was still pushing 6.9w/kg when he got dropped by the chase group containing Miguel Ángel López and Enric Mas (Movistar Team), and Haig. Based on Kuss’ numbers – he was sheltered in the draft of the chase group for 15 seconds behind Roglič – we can estimate that Roglič was pushing around 7w/kg for 12 minutes on the Puerto de Almáchar.
Kuss: Stage 10 – Puerto de Almáchar
Average Power: 369w (6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 393w (6.4w/kg)
Peak 5-min Power: 445w (7.3w/kg)
Steepest section 414w for 11:55 (6.8w/kg for 3.9km at 9.2 percent)
Unfortunately for Jumbo-Visma, the finish line wasn’t at the top of the climb, and with 17km to go, and Roglič still had a technical descent to manage. Not long after cresting the climb, the Slovenian overcooked the turn on a right-hand corner and went sliding into the gravel. He was caught by the chase group soon after, and his mammoth attack was all for naught. But he wouldn’t have to wait long for his redemption.
A closer look at the stage 11 profile revealed an absolutely brutal climb to the finish in Valdepeñas de Jaén. With 900 meters to go, the road ramped up to a 10-, then 15-, then a 24 percent gradient. The narrow ramps continued through the finale until the wide, final stretch of road just before the finish, where only the strongest riders were left standing.
While a certain rider’s dominance was the story of the finish, it’s easy to forget about the crazy run-ins to these sorts of finales. With 20km to go, the peloton flew up the Puerto de Locubin, a category 2 climb with gradients up to 10 percent. It’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of these climbs until you looked at the numbers and realize that most of us mere mortals would never even make it to the final climb – we’d get dropped halfway up the warm-up climb.
Riding the best grand tour of his career, Haig sat near the front of the peloton, pushing nearly 6w/kg in the shelter of his Bahrain-Victorious teammates, and sprinting over the top of the climb to maintain position for the descent.
Haig: Stage 11 – Puerto de Locubin
Average Power: 398w (5.7w/kg)
Final 200m: 654w for 20 seconds (9.3w/kg)
Haig’s teammates had disappeared by the bottom of the final climb, where it was Sepp Kuss who launched first, in service of Roglič. Peaking at over 900w (15w/kg), Kuss smashed it up the first ramp, holding over 10w/kg for more than 30 seconds, but not before Roglič and Mas would go shoulder-to-shoulder into a tight right-hand corner.
Kuss was still pushing 500w as Roglič and Mas rode away with 600m to go. Sitting at a “steadier” pace of just 8w/kg, Haig caught up to the leading duo with 400m to go as the gradient leveled out. Not more than a few seconds later, Mas took off again, gapping Haig but not Roglič. The Slovenian extended his gap all the way to the finish, somehow putting seven seconds into Haig the last 150 meters – the Australian was still pushing over 550w, by the way.
Haig: Stage 11 – climb to Valdepeñas de Jaén
Average Power: 558w (7.9w/kg)
Peak 1min Power: 645w (9.2w/kg)
Kuss: Stage 11 – climb to Valdepeñas de Jaén
Average Power: 480w (7.9w/kg)
Peak 30-sec Power: 666w (10.9w/kg)
Peak 1-min Power: 575w (9.4w/kg)
After the ultra-steep final to Valdepeñas de Jaén, it was a full two days until we saw any real GC action. It came again on stage 14, which featured one of the most unusual stage profiles we’ve ever seen. Smack in the middle of the stage was the category 1 Alto Collado de Ballesteros — a 2.9km climb with an eye-watering average gradient of 13.5 percent. Would there be any action on the steep Spanish ramp?
The climb was too far from the finish for any real action, but that didn’t mean it was easy. American Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) rode at the front of the peloton alongside Jumbo-Visma, who patrolled the climb from bottom to top. From Kuss’ Strava file, we can see a perfect example of the fight for position coming into a major climb.
In professional cycling, it is extremely common for teams to fight for position before major climbs in order to put their team leader in prime position at the front of the peloton. The Vuelta is no different, and Kuss had been working hard to keep Roglič at the front of the bunch ahead of important pinch points. Coming into the Alto Collado de Ballesteros, we can see Kuss made a huge 900w (15w/kg) effort before the turn onto the climb, and then made a 600w (10w/kg) surge in the first hundred meters. This is another factor that separates the pros from elites: the ability to not only push 6w/kg for 20 minutes, but to include multiple 20-second surges at 600w-800w at the beginning of that effort.
Kuss: Stage 14 – Alto Collado de Ballesteros
Average Power: 364w (6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 380w (6.2w/kg)
There was plenty of crash-filled drama in the breakaway, followed by a comeback story that you’ll tell your grandkids about, as Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix) fought to finish third on the stage behind the winner, Romain Bardet (Team DSM). That all happened on the Pico Villuercas, the final climb of the day and summit finish for Stage 14. At 14.4km with an average of 6.3 percent, the Pico Villuercas wasn’t the hardest climb in the Vuelta, but it included a number of steep pitches that could break tired legs.
Jumbo-Visma led the GC group up the majority of the climb, letting an attack go that contained Guillame Martin (Cofidis) and Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux). López launched an attack with a few kilometers to go, while Kuss continued to pace for Jumbo-Visma.
It all looked so easy on the TV screen: Jumbo-Visma pacing, one guy up the road, and it all looked calm and controlled. But when we look at Haig’s power data, we can see just how explosive this finale was.
Haig: Stage 14 – Pico Villuercas
Average Power: 381w (5.4w/kg)
Normalized Power: 397w (5.7w/kg)
Second half of Pico Villuercas:
Average Power: 413w (5.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 432w (6.2w/kg)
Final 4.5km of Pico Villuercas:
Average Power: 432w (6.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 455w (6.4w/kg)
Final 1.7km of Pico Villuercas:
Average Power: 482w (6.9w/kg)
Final 500m: 594w (8.5w/kg) for 1:10
Here we can see how Haig’s power and heart rate increased throughout the climb, and the major spikes that came during López’s attack. In just a few kilometers, the GC group was blown to bits after Kuss’ pacing and a counterattack from Roglič.
It is fascinating to see how the Pico Villuercas followed a stair step-like effort, where the pace got harder and harder and harder, all the way to the finish line. We don’t often see climbs like this anymore, as we’ve grown accustomed to the Team Sky/Ineos train which starts at 6w/kg from the first meter of the climb.
In the end, Haig crossed the line with Roglič, Bernal, and Mas, and continuing to show that he is one of the strongest riders in this Vuelta.