in the mountains, there you feel free
la vuelta 2022 final week
by Pasquale Concilio
What is left of a cycling race when its most anticipated duel gets undone by the very urge to ignite the duel itself?
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I’ve been asking myself this question several times this last week. After Roglič’s bleeding dropout on Tuesday, the whole week of racing seemed to have lost any appeal regarding the General Classification. It didn’t help, of course, that I was rooting for him, and neither did Remco Evenepoel’s skillfully built lead of over 2 minutes in the GC: too much, perhaps, to invite anyone to even ponder the possibility of a coup d’état. Enric Mas shyly declared his resolution to fight, but legs and stage profiles simply disagreed.
Stages went by in an almost irrelevant fashion, and I started to feel just like I did during the 2021 Tour de France, another time when Roglič left bleeding. He was the only pre-race credible opponent of Tadej Pogačar, and no one was able to step into the shoes of a real threat for the young Slovenian. While a brand-new Danish story arose in the likes of Jonas Vingegaard from that unlikely turn of events, we couldn’t possibly know such things at that time, just like today we cannot but wonder what stories this turn of events in the Vuelta will give birth to.
Then I read the recent article in these very pages about the lack of redemption for Primož in this Vuelta. It hit me very hard and made me realize that, this time, fate has decided that Roglič would not be Job, but rather Icarus. It also made me wonder about redemption, who we owe it to, who we ask it from. I found myself thinking about the other stories of redemption that went past me without me even noticing: stories beyond the weakened GC battle, that were all happening on the last mountains of La Vuelta. This is how I will try to make amends.
It is a popular belief that La Vuelta is "the climbers' Grand Tour". Well, every Grand Tour is commonly won on the mountains, but the Spanish one has got a reputation for a race with inhumanly steep climbs, a plethora of mountain top finishes and very little space for sprinters. This is confirmed by data.1 This year’s Vuelta has offered no less than 9 uphill finishes – a quantity that should be read the same way as Geraint Thomas’s reply in disbelief when analyzing the scarce number of “proper bunch sprints” in this year’s Tour. Such an abundance of mountains didn’t prove to be enough for an exciting final week, but at least it provided an opportunity for several riders to shine.
Besides Louis Meintjes’s much awaited award for his unfaltering consistency on stage 9, it was the young riders’ time in the sun, as it often is the case at La Vuelta. Jay Vine and Thymen Arensman’s feats were outstanding, winning two stages and the queen stage, respectively, while Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) and Carlos Rodriguez (INEOS) made their way to the leadership of their teams with impressive performances on the perpetual slopes of the race. The praise they have received for their riding was deservedly heightened by the hardships they had to endure, including an unwelcomed puncture (the former) and a ruinous crash (the latter).
Yet, the first mountain stage of the third week was not for the young. Stage 17 displayed an experienced breakaway, which turned out to be the winning move. While João Almeida was the only GC rider to try an attack, on the front Rigoberto Urán of EF Education-EasyPost broke free from a reduced group, leading the charge around an endless right turn that eventually awarded him with a famous victory, the one that welcomes him in the élite group of riders capable of winning a stage in every Grand Tour.
Overcome by the effort of his sprint against Quentin Pacher, Rigo didn’t even celebrate on the line, which almost seems out of character for him. Over the years, the Colombian rider has frequently performed one of the most histrionic personalities in the peloton. It was the right time to say Finally, Rigo. I remember being in Lausanne at the finish of Stage 8 of this year’s Tour de France, waiting for Roglič, Van Aert and Vingegaard in front of Jumbo-Visma’s team bus after the stage, and next to us stood a whole crowd of frenzied fans outside EF Education-EasyPost’s bus, calling out and cheering for this timeless man, Rigo! Rigo! He came out of the bus, his arms and hands were those of a magician, no intention to tame the crowd, but only to relish in their love.
I also remember him swearing in Italian during an interview. I think Rigo is well aware of the unmatched support with which he is able to swing through the highs and lows of the sport. As is often the case when athletes are able to gather large groups of supporters, every victory feels like a redemption for a whole community. Even in his twilight, I hope Rigo’s bus will still be very popular.
The last time I wrote about Richard Carapaz, he was reluctantly crossing the finish line of stage 20 of this year’s Giro, up to Passo Fedaia, and losing the Maglia Rosa to Jai Hindley. The mountains, much to everyone’s surprise, didn’t spell any good for him that day.
In hindsight, the aim of the Ecuadorian’s redemption has always been clear. It had nothing to do with other riders, but with the mountain itself: it was an attempt at claiming a former alliance with the element in which he thrives.
He started La Vuelta as the GC leader for INEOS but lost this role due to lack of form and perhaps confidence. He switched to stage hunting, a choice that rewarded both him and his team while proving himself also as a valuable domestique for the new leader, Carlos Rodriguez, who, by the way, was also achieving great results in this Vuelta, before crashing hard like so many others in this race.
Carapaz’s active presence in a major number of breakaways has secured him the King Of the Mountain’s jersey of this year’s Vuelta, which he slipped into because of the crash that forced Jay Vine (former owner of the jersey) out of the race. Regardless of the mechanism of acquisition, this title has a special meaning for Carapaz. It honors one of the few riders in this Vuelta that actually managed to make a difference when attacking uphill. Stage 20 stands out for the effectiveness of his attacks, compared to the relative stillness among the group of favorites.
After ripping the breakaway, Carapaz approached the final climb with only Higuita and Meintjes on his wheel, and then viciously wore them out with timely accelerations. This let him escape the slow but steady return of the GC men while his former companions were being absorbed by the inexorable rise of the leader’s group. Furiously choking his pedals, his head was often leaning below his arms, peeping out at any possible chasers that could steal from him the very victory that he was running away with, as if Carapaz himself was the one who was stealing it. Those ghosts materialized in the shape of Thymen Arensman’s slender body, time-trialing his way to bridge the gap from the leader, but it just wasn’t enough. Carapaz won by just a handful of seconds.
This was the third time his attacks won him a stage in this Vuelta. When Carapaz felt sure that no one could ever catch him, he didn’t immediately raise his hands up in the air. He allowed himself the same gesture he made in the finale of the first stage win, a violent rush of irritation and frustration that he performed as a punch to the handlebars. At that time, that ferocious outburst was the inevitable consequence of his poor start. However, on stage 20 he did the same rebellious move, but this time no rage transpired, rather an outlet of pride and satisfaction for his own feats. Some sort of You did it again! A reconciliation with his former self, a prayer to the place where he feels at home.
It’s no coincidence that redemption often comes uphill. In an almost primordial fashion, reaching the top of a climb before everyone else is one of cycling’s greatest statements of superiority, one that the leaders of the race look for as if to validate their own power. Pogačar and Vingegaard both achieved this status at the Tour, and Evenepoel clearly wanted the same with his win on stage 18.
On a day that was marked by the heartbreak for Robert Gesink, just a few meters shy of a gratifying victory after the departure of his teammate Roglič, Remco Evenepoel showed his ability in bending the race to his will, misleading Mas into what eventually would be the perfect lead-out for the young Belgian. An iconic pose was his choice to celebrate the conscious joy of affirming his unmatched strength. Yet, this reaction seems to reveal only one side of Evenepoel when compared to the tears he allowed himself after sealing the overall victory on stage 20.
It is almost universally acknowledged in the world of cycling that this young man has had to face a lot of pain already. Many saw his win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year as the closing of a circle that started with his dreadful 2020 crash in Il Lombardia. Perhaps, many will say that this is his redemption for a disastrous 2021 Giro d’Italia, his first race after the accident, when he received way too much criticism for what he could (or couldn’t) do at that time. Remco remembers it all. His first words after the stage were addressed to his critics. Evenepoel’s redemption is about time: the time he lost in the months of injury, and maybe the time that lies ahead, that which he can now face with a much lighter mind.
These are, I suppose, some of the things that I’ll collect from this year’s last Grand Tour. Of course, redemption is not always equal to winning; it can start from a keen week of escapades in the breakaway after a tough season, as has been the case for last year’s star, Gino Mäder.
Redemption is a form of compensation. The fact that this word has become so apt to describe the adventures of these athletes is a testimony of the emotional investment that this sport requires, both as performers and supporters. I don’t know if Roglič will ever redeem this Vuelta, or any of the Tours he was forced to abandon. Or if Evenepoel can redeem Il Lombardia and his first Giro. The tears on Remco’s face, though, were pure relief, fulfillment and pride.
In the mountains, there you feel free. This time, Remco Evenepoel surely feels it.
Check this article by PCS about the mountain finishes and the vertical meters ridden by the riders in the last 10 years to seize the magnitude of La Vuelta’s love for mountains: https://www.procyclingstats.com/article/vuelta-equals-climbers-festival