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Weather apps will be whirring on team busses throughout the Vuelta a España circus in the next few days.
The threat of fierce winds through the center of Spain could see as many as four stages torn apart in the first week of this year’s Vuelta. Would-be GC guys will be on high-alert from Sunday’s stage and through the race’s first week for splits and echelons that could end their race just days after it had begun.
“As we’ve seen in the past, ‘abanicos’ [echelons] can be just as important as a mountain stage or a time trial, and sometimes they produce more time differences than even the hardest mountain summit,” Miguel Ángel López (Movistar) told reporters before the race rolled out Saturday.
“We have to be very attentive in these stages in the first week because everyone knows there will be wind, and everyone will be fighting to be at the front. They will be nervous and we will try to get through them the best way we can.”
- Ineos Grenadiers brings all the chiefs to Vuelta a España
- Jumbo-Visma looks to navigate perilous opening week without incident
Stages 4, 5 and 8 all look set to be ravaged by crosswinds as the Vuelta sweeps south and east through the country’s exposed center. The threat also hangs over the race’s opening road stage out of Caleruega on Sunday.
“Tomorrow (stage 2) is a sprint stage with a chance of wind,” Jumbo-Visma director Grischa Niermann said Saturday. “We have to be very alert and with a really strong team.”
It’s windy already … 💨 https://t.co/Em4Adx4PLZ
— Andrew Hood (@EuroHoody) August 15, 2021
Teams with more than one leader like Ineos Grenadiers, Movistar, and Niermann’s Jumbo-Visma are hoping to keep all its cards in play through the perilous first week.
“I think the big thing is all the potential windy stages in the first week – we have to be ready for that because anything could happen,” Sepp Kuss of Jumbo-Visma told VeloNews earlier this week. “We want to keep all of us (i.e., Kuss, Steven Kruijswijk and race-leader Primož Roglič) safe and up there through that, and we’ll see how the race works out from there.”
Squads that pack just one option will be relying on their burly domestiques for what could become a week of classics-style racing in the scorching Spanish sun.
For EF Education-Nippo and team leader Hugh Carthy, strong rouleurs are just as important as a fleet of climbers at this year’s race. Minutes can be gained or lost in one missed split whereas only handfuls of seconds are hard-earned in the high peaks.
“The stress on the flat stages will come from the echelons and the winds so if we play our cards right, we could even gain some time there,” Juanma Garate said of his EF Education-Nippo octet.
“On the climbs, I don’t worry as much about those as they are a little more straightforward and we have a really strong team for those. But with (Tom) Scully, (Jens) Keukeleire, (Lawson) Craddock and (Magnus) Cort, we have some guys that will be strong on those flatter stages.”
The scorched earth of Spain may not be a place readily associated with the echelon racing commonly seen in coastal north Europe. But the race for the red jersey has been blown open in the center of Spain many times.
The 220-kilometer 17th stage of the 2019 Vuelta was blitzed at an average speed of 51kph when Deceuninck-Quick-Step exploded the bunch in cross-tailwinds, leaving some unlucky GC riders struggling home five or more minutes back.
Any GC contender caught out in the opening week of this year’s Vuelta will have plenty of time to regain ground, particularly with the race’s brutal final phase in the mountains offering the potential for huge gaps. But losing handfuls of minutes just days into the race will see some fighting an uphill battle equally as stiff as the gradients awaiting them in the Asturias.
“This first week of the Vuelta is crucial for the GC,” Enric Mas (Movistar) said this week. “We have the opening TT in Burgos, the Picon Blanco summit (on stage 3) and we’ll have crosswinds. It will be hot as well.”
Remember the old aphorism that “the race won’t be won here, but it could be lost?”
Mas said it earlier this week.
“The first week won’t be decisive to win the Vuelta, but rather not to lose it.”