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Itzulia Basque Country: Did UAE-Emirates blow it or did Jumbo-Visma boss it?

Primož Roglič and Jumbo-Visma deploy tactical counterstroke against UAE-Emirates in Saturday's thrilling finale.

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Primož Roglič buried his demons at the Itzulia Basque Country this weekend.

Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma squad tipped the tables on UAE-Emirates’ captains Tadej Pogačar and Brandon McNulty on the final stage of the Basque race in what made for a reversal of fortunes from last summer’s Tour de France.

The Basque Country tour was the first major clash between the GC stars at Jumbo-Visma and UAE Emirates so far in 2021, and it did not disappoint.

Going into Saturday’s decisive stage, the GC was finely balanced. Rising talent McNulty held the leader’s jersey for UAE-Emirates, with Pogačar sitting 5th, 43 seconds back. Roglič lurked threateningly on McNulty’s shoulder in second-place, just 23 seconds behind, with his teammate Jonas Vingegaard next on the podium at 28 seconds.

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UAE-Emirates had a difficult call to make Saturday morning. Back McNulty, the relatively unproven race leader, or go with Pogačar, a Tour de France champ with rockets in his heels still within range at 20 seconds behind Roglič?

Roglič didn’t wait for an answer, and went on the offense, blitzing off the front of the race to take second on the stage and win the overall.

Did UAE-Emirates “lose” the race in a tactical miscue? Or did Jumbo-Visma win with straight-up superior strength? We take a look at either side of the argument.

Jim Cotton: Jumbo-Visma bossed it

Roglič and Jumbo-Visma bossed it. And they didn’t just bully the final stage – they had the upper-hand for nearly the whole race.

All through the week, Roglič and Jumbo-Visma were always on the front foot.

Roglič took a commanding 28 seconds on Pogačar in the opening time trial, and a narrow 2 seconds over McNulty. And as if that wasn’t enough, young talents Vingegaard and Jonas Foss also punched into the top-4 to give the team options to help outmaneuver UAE-Emirates. From there on, Roglič never slipped more than 23 seconds off the race lead, and Vingegaard always threatened in the top seven.

The Dutch squad was the victim of a bone fide Twitter flogging after stage 4, when McNulty attacked to pull the leader’s jersey from Roglič’s shoulders and set up the delicate GC scenario heading into the final stage. While Roglič lost the leader’s jersey to McNulty that day, he never took his eyes off the man that counted – Pogačar – and finished in the chase group with his Slovenian “frienemy.”

The final stage turnaround came down to a number of things.

Astana-Premier Tech blew the race open and piled the pressure on both Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Emirates, only crucially, they couldn’t shake the ever-ruthless Roglič, who marked the wheels to get into the front split. And once he had his foot on the gas, Roglič didn’t take his foot off the accelerator.

Also read: The flawed brilliance of Primož Roglič

Within minutes of McNulty’s final crumble on the Krabelin climb, the Slovenian opened up a rare long-range attack that drew out the final three. Roglič has built his palmarès from time trials, bonus seconds, and reduced sprints, and this 50km move was something new. Jumbo-Visma seized the race and it worked out – and with Vingegaard sitting in Pogačar’s group playing anchor as the Tour champ tried to chase, the team kept several irons in the fire.

Jumbo-Visma swept the classifications, and Roglič won a very cool Basque hat for his efforts. The team deserved the commanding final result, and I think Roglič wears his hat well. And it could come in more useful than the six-foot trident Pogačar won at Tirreno-Adriatico too.

Andrew Hood: UAE-Team Emirates misread tea leaves

If you missed Saturday’s firecracker of a stage, it’s worth going back and watching the replay. It was that good.

A three-dimensional chess match is a bit of an over-used cliché, but Saturday’s finale was all that and more.

The GC came down to a few key moments, and the first wedge came when UAE-Team Emirates was caught out on the wrong side of a decisive split on the descent off the second-category Elosua-Gorla climb. Astana-Premier Tech and Movistar attacked over the top in a last-ditch effort to blow apart the race. Roglič had the legs and tactical acumen to follow, McNulty and Pogačar were gapped out of position. The trap was set.

The race was not yet quite lost at that point as the gap was only about 30 seconds coming to the base of the valley. UAE, however, did not have the numbers or alliances on the road to chase down the front group. McNulty was already struggling, and UAE waited too long to give Pogačar a free ride.

Also read: McNulty hits milestone with Itzulia Basque Country leader’s jersey 

There were many moving parts in the final hour of racing. By the time Pogačar saw the green light to chase, Jumbo-Visma’s Vingegaard would sit on his wheel like a dead weight. Roglič found allies up the road with David Gaudu and Hugh Carthy as he attacked out of the front group. Check.

Roglič let it be plainly clear to Gaudu and Carthy that he would not contest for the stage, opening the way for the two lean climbers to work with Roglič to drive his advantage. Behind him, an unshackled Pogačar couldn’t find clear alliances even though Adam Yates and Alejandro Valverde were there. Vingegaard was doing a great job messing up the flow.

Saturday’s stage was a textbook example of how real-time alliances can play out in a stage.

In the end, Pogačar ran out of pavement, Gaudu attacked Carthy for the win, and Roglič celebrated the GC victory behind him. Checkmate.

What was UAE’s mistake? On paper, the explosive, seven-climb stage favored Pogačar way more than McNulty. If UAE wanted to have the best shot for victory, it should have given Pogačar a free ride from the outset to chase down any moves, while having the rest of the teamwork for McNulty.

Maybe the team wanted to honor the jersey even at the expense of losing the race. It was a rare misfire by Pogačar, who was clearly willing to ride for McNulty, but who also had the legs to go with Roglič.

The stage reminded me how the 2015 Vuelta a España played out, when Tom Dumoulin was gapped in a similar scenario in the mountains north of Madrid. Those 30-second gaps can turn into minutes, and that’s what happened Saturday in the raid in the Basque Country.

Could have Pogačar answered Roglič on the Arrate? Probably. Could he have taken back the 20 seconds he needed to win? Maybe. With time bonuses also in play throughout the stage, a scenario was there for Pogačar to have won the overall.

Of course, we’ll never know, and we’ll have to wait for another day to see the next final-day showdown between the two Slovenian gunslingers.

No matter the outcome, the Basque Country will pay dividends in the future for UAE-Emirates. McNulty will take some important lessons from his stint in yellow. And third still isn’t too shabby considering the circumstances for Pogačar, who will only be more attentive down the road.