It will be Primož Roglic versus the rest in the first major mountain stages of the Vuelta a España on Friday and Sunday.
Roglič found himself back in the red jersey he had been so happy to get rid of earlier in the week after he stomped to second-place on Thursday’s sixth stage. He now finds himself in the bittersweet position of GC leader and facing triple threats from both Movistar and Ineos Grenadiers ahead of two grueling stages in the summits of southeast Spain.
“It’s a sweet worry,” Roglič said of having to defend the race lead Thursday. “We’ll see who will be the strongest in Santiago (the final stage of the race – ed). It’s still a long way. This is the start and we’ll try to keep the focus and do our job.”
Team Movistar sits poised with Enric Mas, Miguel Ángel López and Alejandro Valverde all within 41 seconds of Roglič on the GC. Ineos Grenadiers has its own trident ready to strike not far behind them.
Movistar is set to bring all its firepower to a firecracker climbing stage Friday and second high mountain test Sunday. There will be just one thing on the home team’s minds as they warm up on their trainers for the tough start to Friday’s stage – Roglič and how to pull that red jersey from his back.
“Both the Balcón de Alicante and Velefique will be really tough, with a significant portion of the race at stake there,” Mas said of the two summit finishes in the next three days.
“We’re confident about our chances and we’ll try to take advantage from them, because we know that Roglič is such a strong rider, even more so with the final TT in Santiago, which favors his abilities.”
Movistar has come out of the gates hot in this year’s Vuelta. The Spanish squad lit up the summit finish on stage 3 and was aggressive again Thursday, splitting the race in crosswinds in the exposed finale of the day.
It could make for a mere entrée ahead of the main dishes to come in the high mountains.
“We hadn’t taken responsibility at the front of the bunch so much before today because we knew that the upcoming stages, starting with today’s, were really important, even more so on Friday and Sunday,” Mas said Thursday.
Stage 7 on Friday packs six categorized climbs into just 152 kilometers before a fearsome final kick to the Balcón de Alicante. Sunday’s race to the top of Alto de Delefique offers the old school grind of high mountain passes and a route stretching nearly 190km.
With three riders well in play for the overall, Movistar holds all the aces ahead of the mountains. But Roglič has more than Mas, Lopez, and Valverde to worry about Friday through Sunday.
Ineos Grenadier’s triplet Egan Bernal, Adam Yates, and Richard Carapaz are not as well-positioned but every bit as threatening.
The British squad showed all the attacking intent of Movistar but couldn’t bring it together Thursday. Although Roglič was able to follow the dangers of a slightly malfunctioning Ineos attack Thursday, he will have been taking note ahead of what’s to come.
The two climbing stages Friday and Sunday offer Movistar and Ineos Grenadiers the opportunity to explode the race for GC. Both teams pack three attacking options that Roglič and Jumbo-Visma cannot afford to ignore.
Bernal has risen to be best-placed of Ineos’ trio, but Yates at 1:22 and Carapaz at 2:18 are too dangerous to be written off with so much racing to come.
The leadership situation is less clear in the oft-confounded Movistar bus. Valverde is likely to take a back seat, but Lopez and Mas will both be looking for their own results.
Whoever is in charge at Ineos Grenadiers and Movistar, Jumbo-Visma will have to respond if any of the six protagonists make any long-range moves.
To defend or not to defend?
Roglič was happy to hand his red jersey to Rein Taaramäe earlier this week, but he will not relinquish the red so easily over the weekend.
A stray breakaway rider would be a welcome recipient of the GC lead for Jumbo-Visma. But any GC rider within podium range will be kept on a close leash.
“If the situation arises, we can live with it if Primož loses the red again in the coming days,” sport director Grischa Niermann told De Telegraaf. “We have to be frugal with our strength. We will certainly look at riders in a breakaway in the coming days that we can pass that jersey to. But it depends on race situations and we can’t completely control that.”
There’s still a lot of road to go at this Vuelta and holding the red jersey with two full weeks of racing remaining could prove a blessing and a curse for Jumbo-Visma. Monday’s rest day and the series of transitional stages that follow would offer a race-leader’s team some room to breathe, but the Vuelta is still young and an eight-man team can only go so long.
Roglič is in a tight spot ahead of the Vuelta’s first major mountain block.
Movistar and Ineos Grenadiers are poised to pounce and Roglič can’t hand them any opportunities. And although it could be easiest for Roglič to cede the red jersey to a suitably unthreatening rider, it could also be a mistake he comes to rue when the race arrives in Santiago de Compostela in two week’s time.
Trident tactics and red jersey conundrums – expect an explosive few days at the Vuelta.