Jumbo-Visma gave a master-class Monday on how to give away a race leader’s jersey during the first mountain-top finale at Picón Blanco of the 2021 Vuelta a España.
After roaring to victory in the opening time trial in Burgos on Saturday, Primož Roglič was saddled with a leader’s jersey and early race responsibility he and his team didn’t want.
On Monday, the team played a perfect tactic by letting a breakaway group packed with climbers pull clear. Estonian journeyman Rein Taaramäe won the stage and claimed the leader’s jersey for the first time in his career in a grand tour.
Roglič and Jumbo-Visma couldn’t have scripted this better.
“Rein took the jersey, he’s the strongest,” Roglič said at the line. “It was good for us — I’m happy.”
Roglič couldn’t hide his smile as he dropped from first to third, assuring himself an early ride home in the team bus back to the hotel because he won’t be spending extra time at the daily winner’s podium and post-race press conferences.
“Yes, you can be happy to lose a leader’s jersey,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Grischa Niermann. “Our plan was to control the break, but we are happy to give the jersey away.”
Playing both ends of the peloton
The two-time defending champion is now in a sweet spot going into a string of transition stages before the next climbing test Saturday.
He’s now 30 seconds behind the 34-year-old Taaramäe, and five seconds behind French climber Kenny Elissonde (Trek-Segafredo).
Enric Mas (Movistar) squirted clear to gain three seconds on Roglič, but he remained on time with his principal rivals. And even more importantly, he padded his lead to podium threats like Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), who picked up a 20-second time penalty.
The only blot was to see Sepp Kuss, who won the King of the Mountains jersey in the opening time trial, tumble out of the top-10 of the GC. Kuss started the stage ninth overall, but lost 3:43 Monday when he was gapped about midway up the climb, and slipped 28 spots to 37th to 2:40 back.
“I thought it would be a bigger margin because the gap came down really fast,” Niermann said. “We are satisfied to give away the jersey. Primož had a good day, and Sepp had a less-good day, unfortunately, but we are right where we want to be.”
The art of giving away a leader’s jersey
In cycling, sometimes losing a round helps assure victory in a larger strategy. And that is what Jumbo-Visma is betting on.
Roglič roared to victory and the red jersey Saturday in a short but intense test against the clock that confirmed his time trialing chops from his recent Olympic gold medal.
With a time trial closing the Vuelta on September 5, there was a remote possibility that Roglič could have held the maillot rojo start-to-finish.
Of course, no team wants that, but letting a race leader’s jersey ride away is a delicate art.
It’s a sport director’s nightmare to allow a rider with real GC juice get back into a race or take a big head-start. Grand tours have been won and lost by teams getting too cute or riding too loose when it comes to controlling a race.
And as Jumbo-Visma learned in the 2020 Tour de France, controlling a race and taking too much of the responsibility can sometimes come back to bite you, as Roglič found out in the final time trial in the Vosges against Tadej Pogačar.
Even if Jumbo-Visma could have defended red Monday in the 202.8km third stage, they didn’t want to.
The Dutch outfit let the lead group get clear, and paced at the front of the peloton to assure the break didn’t go too far off the front. Taaramäe is no slack, so they didn’t want to wily veteran get too much rope.
Once the main GC group hit the final climb, the gap to the leaders was safely trimmed as other teams helped pile on to protect their respective GC interests as well. It wasn’t only Jumbo-Visma that wanted to control the front.
Niermann said Roglič could have kept red if he wanted, a sign of just how confident the team is in the early days of the Spanish grand tour.
“If he wanted to defend the jersey, for sure, we would have done it,” he said. “We were happy to give it away. He’s happy he doesn’t have to go to the podium today and he can go home with his teammates on the bus, and all that stuff adds up in three weeks.”
Roglič was also pleased with how his legs felt on the final climb. After crashing out of the Tour last month, this is his first major climb during a race in months.
“After all my time trials, I am happy to see I can still climb,” Roglič said with a laugh.
The Vuelta is just starting, and not having the pressure of the red jersey will take the pressure off the next week or so for Roglič.