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It was only a matter of time before the battle for the red jersey at the 2021 Vuelta a España heated up.
On stage 17, Primož Roglič lit up the Cantabrian climbs, even dropping recent Giro d’Italia champ Egan Bernal, on the iconic ascent of Lagos de Covadonga.
As the duo attacked, Movistar riders Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López went on the move in the final 2km, but Roglič’s teammate, American Sepp Kuss, denied them the next best placing, and rode into second place on the stage.
Here’s what the stars said after the first day of a two-day assault in the steep mountains, on stage 17.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma): 2nd, at 1:35
Kuss rode in strong support of his team captain. While the American from Durango, CO looked to be fading on mountain stages earlier in the Vuelta, today he was back on top form.
Kuss covered moves made by Mas, Yates, and López behind Roglič, and when the opportunity to deny GC rivals and also land a stage podium presented itself, Kuss attacked at 200m from the finish line, distancing the other pursuers.
“It was already a hard pace and when Bernal went it was blown apart,” said Kuss. “It was a brave move to go so early.”
“Tomorrow is a crazy hard day,” observed Kuss.
Miguel Ángel López (Movistar Team): 3rd, at 1:35
López was the only rider who reacted — albeit in a delayed fashion — to the long-range attack launched by Egan Bernal and followed by Roglič. But even if López had reacted more quickly, he could not sustain the blistering uphill pace set by the two grand tour winners.
In the closing meters of the stage, López initiated an attack, but when Kuss went up the road, all the Spaniard could do was try to chase and hang on to the American’s wheels.
López landed on the podium, but not without cost, and he is cognizant that another, brutal mountain stage awaits tomorrow.
“Neither [Bernal’s] attack nor Roglič’s pace caught me by surprise. He’s such a talented rider. At first, I tried to go with him and Bernal, yet I couldn’t bridge to them, and I thought I couldn’t continue alone and it wasn’t worth keeping my effort, because, as we saw, Egan would pay that near the end.
“If you’re not sure about your condition, knowing that there’s a 40km full-gas effort ahead, you can really pay, even more so considering there’s another important test tomorrow. We were going at full speed both at the front and behind, to either open the gaps or reduce them.
“It got over two minutes at some point, and we eventually started that last climb with 1:30. That’s why everyone was struggling so much into the climb, with no real gaps. There are really important days still ahead – we’ll see how we get through them.
“I don’t know how Enric’s legs and mine will do tomorrow, but I think we did well today, keeping the front and together. Roglič completed a stunning performance, then it’s pretty much even between the rest. We’ll see tomorrow,” said López.
Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers): 7th, at 1:35
Bernal was the initial aggressor on the stage — nothing chanced, nothing gained — but he could not sustain the blistering uphill pace in the final 7,500m which he initiated with 60km to go.
While Bernal is a very capable climber — he has won two grand tours and can still contest for the best young rider jersey — he faded on the final slopes of the stage, and was even caught some 2km from the finish.
For his efforts, he ultimately improved his GC standings by one place, but ceded 95 seconds to Roglič on the day. The 24-year-old retains the white jersey of the best young rider, with a 2:29 margin over Gino Mäder.
“I don’t like to just stay on the wheels, you often have to, but this is real cycling. I’ve been suffering a lot during this Vuelta and finally, I had good legs.
“I’m happy to be part of this victory for Roglič because he was brave.
“He was leading the race and he went with me, and he was taking turns on the flat. He was the strongest today and I’m happy for him,” Bernal said.
Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious), DNF
Landa’s performances were up and down over the preceding two weeks. And on stage 17, after being in the break which was caught immediately preceding Roglič’s and Bernal’s long-range attack, the Spaniard abandoned the 2021 Vuelta a España.
He’s has been through a long season that included the Giro — which he abandoned — and the recent Vuelta a Burgos in which he took the overall win.
There are a few more weeks remaining in the 2021 season. Will Landa make a return to racing, or call it a season early? We’ll have to see what happens following the conclusion of the Vuelta in just four days.
“I barely had time to recover after the Giro. I was back on the bike almost immediately, hoping not to lose my form. Two months ago I thought it was impossible to fight for a good classification, but I kept the confidence and wanted to try.
“Now it turns out to be too optimistic. Am I frustrated now? A little bit though, I’m not going to lie about that. It has been a difficult season,” said Landa.