The Vuelta a España is off to an incredible start, with 15 GC contenders still within reach of the overall race lead after nine stages. Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) looks unbeatable — as he usually does in the first week of grand tours — but Enric Mas (Team Movistar) is looking better than ever, while Jack Haig now heads a Bahrain-Victorious squad that could blow up the race in the coming weeks.
There have been crashes, abandons, and terrible disappointments already in this year’s Vuelta; but there has also been a chaotic GC battle and heart-warming comeback stories. While we won’t detail the exploits of Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) or Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in this article, we will be closely monitoring their green jersey battle all the way to the final stage in Santiago de Compostela.
From 100km breakaways to scintillating summit finishes, here’s how the first week of the Vuelta played out:
The 76th La Vuelta Ciclista a España kicked off with a 7.1km time trial in Burgos, including a category 3 climb that bestowed the first KOM points. Roglič was unstoppable, taking the win and overall lead ahead of Alex Aranburu (Astana Premier-Tech), while teammate Sepp Kuss took the KOM lead with a blistering climb up the Alto del Castillo. The climb included a few downhill and flat sections, so Kuss punched out of the corners at over 700w, and pushed up the steepest gradients at more than 8w/kg.
Kuss: Stage 1 – Alto del Castillo
Average Power: 438w (7.2w/kg)
Steepest section (500m at 6.8 percent): 500w (8.3w/kg) for 1:09
In classic Vuelta style, the race held its first mountain top finish on Stage 3, featuring the steep 7.6km climb up the Picón Blanco. In the break of the day, Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) battled Joe Dombrowski (UAE-Team Emirates) for the stage win, and not for the first time in their respective careers. But behind, the GC group stayed quiet all the way until 2.4km to go where Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) attacked. It all came back together, and then, with 1.8km to go, Valverde absolutely lit it up. We don’t normally see numbers like this on a summit finish, but the pace in the GC group was so relatively easy, that he had more than a few matches to burn in the final, few hundred meters. In less than two kilometers, Valverde dropped more than 20 riders from the GC group and set up his teammate Mas for a final attack to take fifth on the stage.
Valverde: Stage 3 – Picón Blanco
Average Power: 385w (6.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 405w (6.4w/kg)
Final 1.8km NP: 451w (7.2w/kg) for 5:29
A massive breakaway on stage 7 threatened to turn the race on its head, with potential GC threats Haig, Kuss, and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) going up the road. It didn’t take long for the break to form, as the peloton exploded on the Puerto la Llacuna with less than 10km into the stage. Kuss was tasked with marking breakaway riders for Roglič, while Haig played one of many cards for Bahrain-Victorious. Even with 150km to go, there was no holding back on the 10 percent slopes.
Kuss: Stage 7 – Puerto la Llacuna
Average Power: 379w (6.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 393w (6.4w/kg)
Max Power: 1064w (17.4w/kg)
Despite their massive efforts, the peloton came (somewhat) back together, until UAE-Team Emirates split the race again with 100km to go. Michael Storer (Team DSM) went on to take the stage win, but the real drama was behind, in both the breakaway and GC group. Valverde crashed out of the Vuelta after hitting a pothole on a descent, while Kuss and Haig launched themselves up the overall standings by finishing 4th and 5th on the stage, gaining more than two minutes back on the GC group containing Roglič.
After riding over 6w/kg on the first climb of the day, the breakaway settled into their all-day pace, which means about 5-5.5w/kg on the climbs, and rotating at 45kph on the flats. It wasn’t until the final two climbs that the break began to split under pressure from Storer, Lawson Craddock (EF-Education Nippo), and Pavel Sivakov (Ineos Grenadiers).
Haig rode as steadily as he could in the chase group, but that didn’t mean the climbs were easy. In the final 45km of stage 7, Haig rode at nearly 6w/kg on every climb, after having burned over 3,000 kJs.
Haig: Stage 7 – Puerto El Collao at 50km to go
Average Power: 364w (5.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 397w (5.6w/kg)
Haig: Stage 7 – Puerto de Tibi
Average Power: 393w (5.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 407w (5.7w/kg)
Haig: Stage 7 – Balcón de Alicante
Average Power: 406w (5.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 420w (5.9w/kg)
Final Kilometer: 449w (6.3w/kg) for 3:18
Haig’s ability to negative split these climbs – in terms of power output – is what makes him world-class. One of these efforts alone is mightily impressive. Doing them back-to-back-to-back is even more so. But stringing together these three efforts, and going 10-20w more each climb, and finishing it off with a 6.3w/kg kick for the final kilometer…that’s what could land Jack Haig on the Vuelta podium.
The Australian wasn’t done. On stage 9, with his team leader Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) dropping off the pace, Haig put in one of the best rides of his career to finish fourth on Alto de Velefique, one of just two uncategorized climbs at this year’s Vuelta, being 13.1km long at an average of 7.2 percent.
Haig’s teammate, Damiano Caruso, was the star of the day. He left the breakaway behind at 71km to go, and soloed to an incredible stage win for his second grand tour stage victory of 2021. Behind, Ineos Grenadiers paced the peloton all the way to the bottom of the final climb up the Alto de Velefique, setting an attack by Adam Yates with nearly 10km still to climb. Only Kuss and Miguel Ángel López (Movistar Team) followed while Haig and the other GC contenders kept a steady pace behind. This proved to be crucial when the gradients leveled out in the later stages of the climb, and fresh legs and counterattacks did more serious damage.
I’m not really sure what Ineos’ plan was going into this climb, but it ended up that Egan Bernal closed the gap to the leading trio for Haig and the other GC riders, who got a free ride all the way until 6km to go. Then Yates attacked again, Roglic, Lopez, and Enric Mas (Team Movistar) bridged across, until Mas countered and it’s just him and Roglic left up front. Haig kept his pace steady until 2km to go where he put in the first of three surges to drop Bernal, and a handful of other GC riders.
Haig: Stage 9 – Alto de Velefique
Average Power: 405w (5.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 413w (5.8w/kg)
Second half Normalized Power: 425w (6w/kg) for 15:08
Final 2km: 439w (6.2w/kg) for 4:42
If these power numbers don’t seem crazy, remember that it was more than 32C° (90F°) for the entire stage, and Haig already burned 3,900kJs, and held a normalized power of 309w (4.4w/kg) for four and a half hours. And this was before he started the final climb. The Australian’s resistance to fatigue and performance in extreme heat makes him one of the favorites for the Vuelta overall. With Landa was just a few minutes back, and Caruso and Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious) having worked their way back into the GC picture, it will be a fascinating battle of breakaways and summit finishes all the way to Santiago de Compostela.