When I asked Gino Mäder in the morning how he felt about stage six, he gave a single, unequivocal answer: “Nervous.”
“Nervous?” I asked. “Why?”
“Forecast looks like wind for the last few kilometers.”
“Proper crosswinds, like, proper. Not like yesterday.”
I laughed. “Yesterday you told me that today is when the fun starts.”
It was Gino’s turn to laugh. The stage had not yet started yet, had not yet inflicted its delayed brutality upon him.
“Ah, it can still be fun if you like — if you're in the mix and you have something to say about the outcome of the race, but if you're just racing to fill the results sheet, then it's not so fun.”
This was Gino Mäder at the end of Stage Six. He did not have fun.
I mention Gino Mäder not because he had a particularly decisive role in this specific stage, but because his name came up quite a bit after. You see, back at Paris-Nice, which seems forever ago now, Gino Mäder was set to take his first World Tour win from the breakaway, having survived everything and everybody, fully prepared in the final one hundred meters to raise his arms up in victory. But, as the famous story goes, Primož Roglič zoomed in at the last second and denied him rather callously, a big fat grin on his face. Afterwards Roglič told press, “I don’t gift stage wins.” (Afterward, Roglič lost Paris-Nice on the last stage, something the Twitterati linked to karmic justice.) However, fast forward to stage six, and Roglič, in resplendent form despite his injuries from the Tour, looked poised to do the same thing to Magnus Cort Nielsen of EF Education Nippo, who, like Mäder, managed to hold off the others from the breakaway all day (and it was a long day, too), even onto the final test up the Montaña de Cullera. Whether Roglič had learned a bit of peloton politics since the beginning of the season, or whether he simply didn’t have the legs to deny the Dane his glory is a topic of some debate. What matters, however, is the outcome: an unlikely breakaway win on a stage that struck fear in the hearts of riders before they even climbed on their bikes.
“Why is BikeExchange chasing?”
This is the question being tutted around in the press room (thankfully air conditioned this time) as the team’s Celeste Bianchis swarm to the front, presumably in order to pull back a strong breakaway so that their punchy sprinter Michael Matthews could have a chance at the day’s prize. However, the last climb isn’t a punch, it’s a slog disguised as one. Everyone is in agreement that it’s too difficult for Matthews, and yet, and yet, BikeExchange steadily pulls back the minutes, gets the race under wraps. Until that decisive climb, it’s agriculture, a lot of it — oranges and sunflowers and corn and god knows what else — oh, and wind. A tailwind, then a headwind, then a tailwind again, and then, with twenty odd kilometers left in the race, what do you know, a crosswind.
Ineos feels it first, and they live for it. They’re on the front like a freight train, doing their damnedest to put separation between Egan Bernal and everyone else. Movistar, with three riders in the current GC top ten, are of course, having none of it. They take control, in pure Movistar fashion, hoping to get at least something out of what has been a rather lackluster season for them. Roglič, for his part, is there, and so is Landa. But there are losers. Splits form. Among the victims are Hugh Carthy and the current red jersey wearer, Trek-Segafredo’s Kenny Elissonde. It’s a bit tragic really. For the underdogs who have worn it, the red jersey has been secured in wonderful ways and then lost in what can only be considered the results of bad luck. The crosswinds, be they real or fictional, have had their way with the race, majorly. Fretting over them caused a massive crash on stage five that robbed Rein Taarämae of la roja and both Guillaume Martin and Romain Bardet of their chances at the GC. Snuffed out like candles, they hunt for stages now.
Meanwhile, back on the flat, the stalemate over the leader’s jersey - with Roglič’s team not wanting to bear the responsibility until later (according to sports director Grischa Niermann earlier that morning) - means that stage six should be a day for the breakaway, an appetizer to whet the palate before the hellish test of stage seven.
But no. Now it’s Ineos is at the front. And they are working. Hard.
We’re driving up that climb, and my god, even driving up it is brutal. It’s one of those hills where one wonders whether the car is going to go backwards, where every hairpin is a test of the brakes. Flanked by scrubby coastal foliage, navigating a rental car through there is one of those scenarios I wouldn’t wish on anyone. With ten kilometers to go in the race, we are stuck on the mountain. On either side of the road, cacti and a ravine. Passing up to the top to turn around is impossible, because someone at Eurosport is terrible at parking. We have no choice but to try and straight-line back it and K-turn our way out without falling off a cliff, like some kind of demented driver’s license test. My poor sister, Susannah, is on the brink of tears. The car is scratched to hell from the thorns and the trees and the branches. (Susannah, for her part, would later perform a small miracle by somehow getting all of the scratches out with toothpaste of all things.) A British man on his way down to the course taunts us and says, “I hope you have good insurance.”
Meanwhile, the race is almost over and I have missed half of it. It’s a sprint to the line for them and for me. I don’t have time to ask for riders ahead of the finish — it will be the kind of day where I just piggyback on whoever my colleagues are able to get.
Just as I make it to the mixed zone, and in a perfect imitation of the climb we just braved, the riders turn onto the hill, and the pack is thinned one by one.
Except Magnus Cort. He hangs on.
To be fair to BikeExchange, Michael Matthews almost does it.
He still finishes sixth, ahead of the likes of Egan Bernal, for example. It’s a valiant effort, one that lasts until the final five-hundred meters, and one that’s certainly worth their earlier efforts. Without them, the finale would have been a little less interesting, a little less vital, decisive. The group that was distanced in the crosswinds manages to bridge but their matches are burned and they don’t have the energy to contest for the win. It’s almost inevitable that the red jersey will go to Roglič. He looks easy and comfortable, he’s in his element. After all, perilous, short climbs like these are Roglič Territory. Unfortunately, others struggle, among them, Mikel Landa, who is perhaps the biggest GC loser of a day that put him a just over a minute behind.
For a while, it seems as though Ineos is going to seize control of this climb once it starts and keep control of it until the end, and indeed they try to make the final selection with a massive surge of power. Meanwhile, others show their strengths for a moment or two, Vlasov, Ciccone. (It’s the Giro all over again.) After everyone regathers themselves, however, settles into their places for the day’s slog, it’s Ineos that’s left somewhat in the dust, with Bernal finishing only seventh across the line. The days of their indomitable power appear to be over, the superteam hand-wringing perhaps put to bed here, as it was in the Tour. The same could be say for Jumbo Visma, with Roglič all on his own within just five-hundred meters of climbing. Isolated.
Only one thing is made certain: This will be a Vuelta of mano a mano combat. It will not be an arms race, it’s too difficult for that, designed to be a force that will reduce everyone to their barest selves, competing only with what is left over of others.
Five hundred meters to go, and Roglič slips out from behind and goes clear. It’s textbook Roglič, and it feels certain that he’s the strongest one here, at least for now. His certain electricity is in the air. That the charmingly mustachioed Cort holds him off is wonderful — for Cort (who came close to winning in a sprint earlier in the week) but also for EF, too, because otherwise the day’s business for them would have been Hugh Carthy finishing over two minutes behind. When a GC hope is snuffed out, it’s a bittersweet feeling. Of course, their dreams of total victory are done, which is terrible, but at the same time, they are freed from the burden of the clock, of micromanaging the seconds, of the stress of close contention. They can go for stages, and their teammates can go for stages. The breakaway beckons, and with it, so, too, chaos.
However, as soon as Cort rolls to a stop, there are already talks of stage seven. It’s going to be brutal, opening and closing with a first category climb, with more tests in between to thin out the pack. While there have been GC days (inadvertently) in this Vuelta, this will be the first GC Day. Roglič and his team will bear the responsibility of controlling the race, a suboptimal situation for a squad with less strength than the one Jumbo brought to the Tour. Men like Landa, Yates, and De La Cruz have time to make up and will devote themselves to doing so. Ineos will have to regather itself and head back to the drawing board. And Movistar, with three riders in the top five of the GC, will most likely do whatever they can to maintain that powerful position, and by the finish line, the actual leader of that team will likely be made clear.
In the words of Gino Mäder, who, at the end of our interview, gave me a sly little smile with his eyes and said:
“Worst case, we're going to have a lot of fun tomorrow.”