ROQUETAS DE MAR, Spain (VN) — Team Sky isn’t throttling the Vuelta a España and the Spanish grand tour is already more open as a result.
Breakaways won in back-to-back stages and Sky uncharacteristically allowed a grand tour leader’s jersey to ride away during Wednesday’s hot and challenging transition stage across the Sierra Nevada.
Twenty-four hours after defending red against a break, Michal Kwiatkowski watched the jersey slip away to Groupama-FDJ’s Rudy Molard.
Has Sky lost its mojo? Staffers were quick to point out Wednesday’s surrender was a tactical retreat.
“It’s going to be really hard for us if we are going to have to control for another three weeks,” said Sky director Gabriele Rasch. “For now it’s good for us to have FDJ in the red jersey and we can concentrate more now on Sunday.”
Forfeiting leader’s jerseys early in grand tours is nothing new. Teams are prudent about using their collective strength to defend a jersey when it really counts. Add the excessive heat with temperatures hovering around 100F in the opening five stages at the Vuelta, and it’s logical that Sky doesn’t want to burn its matches too early.
With three relatively easy transition stages before Sunday’s uphill finale at La Covatilla, Sky’s decision to not fight all day through heat and headwinds in Spain’s sun-blasted Andalucía region makes perfect sense.
“The heat is a big factor so far. On Tuesday, the tempo was pretty easy, but once they started to go hard, a lot of riders blew up,” Rasch added. “[Kwiatkowski] looks super sharp. We will see how far he can go. I think he will be good all the way to Madrid. We are just taking it day by day right now.”
Rivals, however, did not miss the fact that Kwiatkowski was largely isolated in Tuesday’s uphill finale at Alfacar. David de la Cruz battled back in the end, but helpers such as Sergio Henao, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Pavel Sivikov were not there.
Part of that, too, might have been the plan as Kwiatkowski said he was confident he could hold the wheel of his GC rivals on what was not necessarily that difficult of a climb.
But it’s obvious Team Sky is not unleashing the same shock and awe as it typically does during the Tour de France each summer.
Sky arrived at this Vuelta without defending champion Chris Froome or Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas expecting to race in a different manner. Kwiatkowski snagged the leader’s jersey early with back-to-back second places in the opening two stages.
“We can see the team is not on the same level as it was at the Tour,” said LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk. “We were also surprised not to see Movistar step up. We took the initiative [Tuesday] because no else was.”
It’s not the first time that Sky tried to “give away” the jersey. During last year’s Vuelta, Sky seemed ready to cede Froome’s leader’s jersey in stage 7 only to see other teams come over the top to keep Sky in the lead.
The tactics of the opening days of the Vuelta haven’t gone unnoticed. After a Giro d’Italia that saw no breakaways work until the final week and a typically controlled Tour, this Vuelta is already more wide open.
“Normally Sky likes to keep the breakaway under close control on the mountain stages, so yesterday was a bit of a surprise,” said stage-winner Simon Clarke (EF Education First-Drapac).
“They have a strong team here, but they don’t have their ‘world championship’ team,” Clarke continued. “I think it’s more the heat than anything. If you ride hard at the front you pay for it. If you have a three-week goal, it’s natural that you’re going to be cautious.”
Sky clearly isn’t the five-star favorite right now and it’s taking a tactical step back to ease pressure off Kwiatkowski and the rest of the team.
After defending Tuesday, Sky shifts its priorities to protecting both Kwiatkowski and De la Cruz until the next summit finale Sunday up La Covatilla.
Other teams will inevitably need to step up, with LottoNL-Jumbo and Movistar first in line. With extreme heat forecasted for the next several days, however, no one will be in a hurry to fill the void.