the end of a pilgrimage / the king of spain

la vuelta, a wrap-up

I guess you probably wouldn’t know it from the fact that this post has taken so long to produce, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about La Vuelta since things came to a close in Santiago de Compostela last weekend and we (just barely) caught our connecting flight home. I’m still having the slightest bit of trouble getting my head around the fact that I went to another continent to cover my favorite bike race (which, if you asked me, delivered the best overall package of the three Grand Tours this year by some distance, even with my Rojo-tinted glasses removed) and I’m having an even harder time getting my head around the fact that it’s over.

It felt fitting that things ended in Santiago de Compostela, the site of the end of the much-discussed Camino de Santiago, a spiritual journey I found myself identifying with as I completed my own much less significant pilgrimage, chasing a bike race and a dream on the other side of the world. Writing a recap and wrap-up brings a degree of finality and closure that I guess I’ve been hesitant to embrace, so I’ve put it off in a mild expression of denial. Mea culpa, I guess, or perhaps lo siento would be more appropriate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how Kate often refers to the act of covering and experiencing this sport from up close as an on-the-ground correspondent as the “realization of a girlish dream” or something of that nature. It’s an act of mild self-denigration with which I’ve come to deeply empathize and identify of late.

There’s a certain emotional distance expected of Capital J Journalists, even in the sporting world, and especially in cycling, whose complicated history (read: doping, perpetual financial instability, a host of other decidedly unfun but important things) has bred, to put it gently, a bit of a culture of skepticism. 

What we do at derailleur, with our wide-eyed reverence, celebratory tone and meme-worthy, near-incessant use of words like “resplendent” can at times feel a bit incompatible with that reality. Similarly, when we talk about how special it feels to have broken through and carved out a little space for ourselves in this sport we care deeply about, it’s almost the slightest bit… I don’t know, embarrassing?

So I understand the impulse to make a show out of acknowledging how juvenile and fanciful it all is, because it feels like getting out in front of what other people in the space must be thinking and saying. 

Well, if anyone is saying it, fuck’em.

I have dreamed about covering a sport like this since I was a boy, and it took a lot longer than I might’ve expected when I entered journalism school at the University of Missouri around this time thirteen years ago, but damn if it isn’t finally happening. I’m not going to act like it isn’t the coolest thing I’ve ever done, because it absolutely whips. 

I loved road-tripping around Spain with one of my closest friends — even the miserable parts. I saw much less of the actual race than I would’ve seen at home on a GCN+ or Peacock Premium stream, but I happily made that trade to catch what I did see from much closer. I enjoyed getting my elbows out for space in the mixed zone, building a rapport with some riders, and doing actual interviews again, some of which will go into future content I’m really excited to share with you in the coming weeks/months.

I met and became friendly with colleagues, and was incredibly gratified when a few went out of their way to say they were looking forward to seeing me again at races next year. I hope they’re right. We goofed and failed to get a planned picture with Juan Carlos and César, which would have been perfect to toss in here at the end of this intro. Damn. Next time. 

Anyway, the end of my Vuelta was incredible, and it’s actually quite liberating to write about it. Probably should have done this sooner after all. Again, lo siento. Let’s talk about bike racing.

To start with, it’s the sort of parcours that every Grand Tour route should include at least a couple of, otherwise what the hell are we doing? Proper hilly and medium mountain stages are an underutilized tool in Grand Tour race design — an idea that has gained significant momentum of late.

From Mathieu van der Poel’s mid-energy bar solo attack and Tadej Pogačar’s daring chase on stage five of Tirreno Adriatico, to Primož Roglič’s raid on the final stage of Itzulia Basque country, some of the best race days this year have been produced by undulating routes with repeated short(ish), steep climbs that render the race uncontrollable. 

Stage twenty of La Vuelta was designed to showcase the Pontevedra area’s twisting Galician roads and cruel climbs, finishing with a trip up Castro de Herville which is plenty tough enough for a final selection. It didn’t fail to deliver.

With Roglič’s overall lead more or less cemented after his solo excursion on Lagos de Covadonga and the ace-in-the-hole of the couple of minutes he was likely to pick up in the final time trial, viewers would be forced to look elsewhere for intrigue. Fortunately, we were spoiled for choice.

There’s always something slightly whimsical about the way Adam Yates looks when at his best and on the attack — a sort of playful quality to the way that he bounces and rocks his entire body back and forth rather than just the bike. He almost appears as though skipping rather than actually pedaling, creating a stark contrast with the suffering of the (often excellent) riders on his wheel. When he went skipping over the top, countering as rivals closed down teammate Egan Bernal’s move with fifty-seven and a half kilometers to go, he blew the race apart, setting in motion several storylines that would collectively rewrite the ending of this Grand Tour.

Yates benefitted from his own industriousness and switched-on instincts, to be sure, but no team gained more from this ambush than Bahrain-Victorious. By the time this stage rolled around, Gino Mäder had been hinting to Kate in interviews for over a week that something was coming, and the team had plans to re-shuffle the deck in a major way. They nearly ran out of time, but Yates’s move presented an unforeseen opportunity. 

With the race descending into chaos, a five-man GC selection formed, with Roglič comfortably closing the gap, followed by Jack Haig, Enric Mas, and Mäder. With an opportunity to potentially move Haig onto the podium, Mäder installed himself on the front and absolutely buried himself, giving a monstrous pull for his leader and dragging the group free from the chasers behind. Reinforcements came when Mark Padun, who broke out to the tune of two stage wins at the Dauphiné earlier this year, dropped from the breakaway and rendezvoused with his Bahrain teammates, helping drag them to the final climb.

When all was said and done, not only had Haig secured third place in the overall standings (which should stand him in good stead for leadership in the Tour de France again next year), but Mäder himself was rewarded with a top-five overall finish, and moved past Bernal and into the young rider’s jersey. Grinning almost constantly and bowing deeply on the podium, Mäder would consolidate his place at the finish in Santiago de Compostela the next day. 

Unfortunately, for some riders to ascend requires that others fall, and none fell further than Miguel Ángel López. Superman López, who displayed great courage and strong legs in equal measure when he claimed the race’s queen stage on Altu d’el Gamoniteiru, had done nearly everything right over the balance of the Vuelta. On stage twenty, all of that good work was undone by a few seconds of indecisiveness. 

When Yates and his group made a break for it, López missed the split, momentarily caught out while on Bernal’s wheel. When Kate and I arrived at the finish line a little while later (having briefly gotten lost about three separate times while navigating dirt roads with directions that left a little to be desired), the mixed zone was buzzing with chatter about López’s whereabouts. 

Depending on who you asked at that moment, he had either gotten in a team car, or was still working on the front of the chase group, or had disappeared entirely. Piecing together the puzzle of what exactly happened takes some doing, as well as some reliance on the possibly unreliable testimony of López, his wife and father-in-law on one side, and general manager Eusebio Unzue and the Movistar Team on the other. 

What is agreed upon is that López missed the split, though there is some dispute about whether he did so because he was stuck on Bernal’s wheel, or whether he simply didn’t have the legs. Also in question, even more contentiously, is whether he was instructed not to chase by the team car. López insists he was not allowed to attempt to close the gap, while Unzue claims the team merely told him to hold off on pulling in order to allow the return of teammate José Joaquín Rojas, who was coming from a little over a minute behind. Ideally, Rojas would then be able to pull the group and allow López to save energy to protect his position.

Ultimately though, having lost several minutes to the main group GC favorites, López climbed off his bike, and abandoned the race.

Whatever or whomever you believe in this scenario, the dealings involved are a bit more complex than it might appear at first glance. López, as a Colombian, has occupied a strange role in the predominantly spanish Movistar outfit — one vacated a couple of years ago by his compatriot Nairo Quintana. Movistar (the telecommunications giant owned by parent company Telefónica, not the cycling team they sponsor) has an enormous South American presence, and craves a new Latin American tentpole star to build around, as they once did with Quintana and might have done with Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz, if not for his exit.

Further complicating matters, there has long existed a sentiment in some circles that Quintana and Carapaz were treated as second-tier leaders, whose aims were often treated as subordinate to the objectives of Spanish stars Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. Unsurprisingly, those same circles have tended to believe that Movistar had already begun treating López the same way, subjugating him beneath Enric Mas. 

López had already been forced to work for Mas on a couple of occasions early in the race, the thinking goes, and was probably held back somewhat from attacking during the period when he was strongest later on in La Vuelta, so as not to introduce additional danger for Mas. I can yield very little clarity as to how much truth there is in any of these claims — I just know that it’s sad to watch. 

López and Movistar were always an unlikely pairing, as we’ve discussed, given their fraught history as rivals. In his time with the team, however, he has been their most consistent winner and a rare bright spot in the second year of a relative fallow period with few big wins. At the time of publication, rumors continue to swirl that he will be released from his two-year contract extension, and is returning to Astana. 

The one other thing both sides seem to agree on, ultimately, is that López’s course of action was an unfortunate mistake. I’m inclined to agree, as there were sporting and financial reasons to continue on and attempt to salvage a result, to say nothing of the decidedly bad look of scorning teammates who had worked tirelessly to put him in position for a good overall result. That said, however, I’m reminded of a conversation Kate and I have often had about the way cyclists (and perhaps athletes more broadly) are rarely allowed to get angry, or even righteously indignant. That agency is stripped from them in favor of a constant expectation to be diplomatic and camera-friendly, which strikes me as more than a little dehumanizing.

Do I think Miguel Ángel López is ultimately in the right in this broader scenario? Not particularly, but I’m not sure it really matters, and what’s done is done. I do, however, think it’s a shame that he was made to release a relatively canned-seeming apology via Movistar’s social media accounts, rather than being allowed some semblance of dignity. 

All of that drama may have ultimately overshadowed the stage’s final just a touch, and for that to be the case would be a great shame, as it was one of the best and most satisfying endings to a race this year. 

The group of favorites swallowed up Ryan Gibbons, the lone man out front after a long day in the break. Mikel Bizkarra, who rides for his local Pro Continental team, Basque outfit Euskaltel-Euskadi, another absorbed breakaway rider, helped reanimate the race with some timely attacks of his own. Ultimately, though, it looked every bit the sort of scenario that Roglič generally thrives in, and he appeared to be doing so, closing down nearly every attack in imperious form.

Daniel Friebe of The Cycling Podcast leaned over and asked who I thought would win the stage.

“I think they’re all about to be, as you’d say, Roglified,” I replied, borrowing the podcast’s parlance for Roglič’s near-unstoppable demolition jobs. 

“I don’t know…” he replied, looking slightly amused. “Of course he might not be able to help himself if they get close enough and the line’s right there, but I suspect he’ll be diplomatic and let somebody go.”

Whether or not it was rooted in diplomacy, he was correct. AG2R’s Clément Champoussin attacked from absolutely nowhere, face already contorted in a full-blown, open-mouthed grimace as he flew past the favorites with just under two kilometers remaining. Roglič, positioned on the front, sat unmoved. 

Calling the action for Eurosport and GCN, the always-controversial Carlton Kirby didn’t even make the vaguest attempt to contain his glee as Champoussin rode away, face twisted up in pain. 

“Clément Champoussin… come on, this would be fantastic!” he exclaimed, almost giggling. 

And it was fantastic! 

The young Frenchman gave it everything, grinding away furiously as the gradient picked up in the final few-hundred meters, desperately hanging on as Roglič effortlessly outkicked the rest of the group and came in six seconds behind. 

It’s the first win of Champoussin’s young, promising career, and it will be a famous one. May it be the first of many.

The final time trial was discussed ahead of time as more of a coronation than anything, and that’s approximately what we got. Spare a thought for Magnus Cort Nielsen, who produced another outstanding performance in a Vuelta where he’s been a revelation. He finished second, and was at least thirty-eight seconds better than everyone who finished below him. He was fourteen seconds off of Roglič, who struck one final cruel blow when he caught Mas just prior to the line, putting a further two minutes and four seconds into his closest GC rival. He finished the better part of five minutes clear in the overall race, ultimately securing a comfortable win in his Vuelta three-peat. 

It occurs to me that both the broader cycling media and this publication may be on the verge of running out of novel ways to discuss this man who is so instrumental in determining the course of the top level of this sport at the moment. 

The ski jumper memes are so far past the point of being played-out that they’ve nearly looped all the way back around and reverted to being funny again. The commentary about the robotic cadence of his speech and frequent interjections of “uhhhh” and “phwoah” from frustrated members of the media has given way to near-parody. Even his resilience, which he has displayed after failing to achieve his primary season goal three years in a row now, rebounding to become a three-time Vuelta conqueror, a Monument winner and an Olympic champion, has become an utterly trite topic. 

I suppose I could talk about how resplendent he looked in the vibrant, regal Maillot Rojo again? 

… You don’t need any more of that? Okay.

I guess what’s really left to discuss is how for the first time, despite once again producing a season that was ultimately a bit of a mixed bag, Roglič appears comfortable, if not downright serene. Whether due to fatherhood, or the accumulation of his accomplishments, some other less identifiable form of actualization, or some aggregate of all these things and more, he has evolved.

On the bike, he is riding with a sort of liberation that provides a bit of a stark contrast to the rigidity that had taken hold of him since ascending as a GC candidate. No longer content to sit on and take control only in the last kilometer, he twice produced dynamic, long-range attacks during this Vuelta, with mixed results. The first time, he pushed on a slippery descent like an absolute lunatic, binned it around a sketchy corner, and was lucky not to have injured himself. The second time, he produced one of the most dominant GC efforts of the year on Lagos de Covadonga. On the whole, a pretty decent return!

Off of the bike, he is gentler, funnier, and at times, even a little bit more generous in his dealings with the press. He’s become reasonably quick with a one-liner, even if the bulk of his answers are still relatively sterile and anodyne. 

I don’t know if this heralds a continued progression toward an even more dynamic, daring rider and a more personable public presence. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re approaching his upper limit on both those axes, which is okay, because the sport needs all kinds. On the whole, though, a more comfortable, less anxious, self-actualized Roglič represents an even more dangerous one, and on the evidence of this Vuelta, we may not have seen the best of him yet.

So that's a wrap on three Grand Tours, two of which we've traveled to. This project has continued to grow beyond our wildest expectations, and as always, we're so grateful for the support that has allowed us to do this. Thank you for coming with us on this journey, and we can't wait for what's next.

Regarding what actually is next, expect some of our typical content on the World Championships (probably not a five-part series from Kate this time, but I guess it's not for me to rule it out?) as well as the remaining two monuments, and maybe some of the other fall classics if something particularly spicy happens. Apart from that, keep an eye out for some other, less race-focused content that I've got in the works, which I hope you'll enjoy.

We love you all, and for now, adios.