weekend double feature

la vuelta stages seven and nine

Well, the weekend did promise some chaos — it was right there on the label. After a relatively contained first week that prompted a few jokes about whether or not La Vuelta had suddenly discovered the existence of flat stages, things were about due for a shakeup. 

Friday presented as a classic Vuelta medium mountain affair. Teams would have identified this stage as soon as the route was announced, either as a trap or an opportunity, or otherwise a day to strap the hell in and hang on. 

For any ideal ambush stage, the first ingredient is an early climb, up which interested parties, if so inclined, could absolutely smash it in order to put the peloton into difficulty, and facilitate an early escape for strong satellite riders to make the break. 

From there, some winding, undulating mountain roads never go amiss in making sure the stage is difficult to control, especially for teams who have been weakened or thinned out by that early climb. Lastly, make sure the route is nothing but decent-length climbs and descents for the last fifty plus kilometers, so that early moves actually have a chance to stick. 

So, today… Early climb? Check. Mountain roads? Check. Fifty kilometers of up and down? Try a hundred. Hey, like Gino Mäder told Kate after stage six, it was bound to be “a lot of fun.”1

A team like Movistar would have been inclined to agree. 

As the presumptive favorite in the leader’s jersey, supported by a slightly less formidable team than usual, Primož Roglič was a marked man. And with three viable leaders sitting second, third, and fourth in the general classification, all within forty-one seconds of Roglič, no team was better positioned to capitalize on his vulnerability than Movistar. 

In Movistar parlance, this configuration has come to be known as “the Trident,” one of a couple dozen recognizable memes that follow the World Tour’s oldest, oft-maligned team around. Prior years saw a Trident comprising Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde fail to set aside their own interests and collaborate effectively. 

This model, on the other hand, genuinely does appear new and improved. Valverde, improbably, remains a credible threat at forty-one years old. Enric Mas is on flying form — possibly the best of his career to this point. Miguel Ángel López, who two years ago at this race referred to Movistar as “always the same idiots” is riding on a one-year deal with the team this year, and appears to be enjoying his time enough to have signed on for another two. There’s been a genuine feeling of optimism around this team at its home Grand Tour for the first time in several years. 

They have riders in the break, good form on the day, and a sizable window of opportunity. Jumbo-Visma has deployed Robert Gesink and Sam Oomen, both of whom struggled earlier in the day, to control the race at the front of the peloton. They’re vulnerable, and everyone here knows it. Suddenly, with about forty five kilometers remaining, Valverde attacks, using a quick burst from teammate José Joaquín Rojas to protect him from the wind as he accelerates off the front. 

He is joined immediately by former teammate Richard Carapaz, and shortly after by his Ineos Grenadiers co-leader, Adam Yates, and a couple of others including David de la Cruz. This is a danger move, full of absolute hitters with potentially useful teammates up the road, and alarm bells are going off in the Peloton. Oomen has picked up the pace, and Jumbo seem intent on shutting this move down before it can even get started. 

The next few minutes will be crucial. They could be caught in seconds, and the move could come to nothing, or be followed by another in a series of rolling attacks. On the other hand, if they can get free on the descent from the Puerto el Collado, increase the gap and rendezvous with teammates dropping from the break, they could put minutes into Roglič. 

Suddenly, disaster strikes.

Following Carapaz through a corner at high speed, Valverde’s front wheel hits… something. A small pothole? A rock? It’s too insignificant to even see in the video footage, but it’s more than enough to lowside him. As his bike slides out, his head and right shoulder slam violently against the tarmac, but he doesn’t come to a stop. He continues skidding straight through a gap in the guardrail and slowly tumbles over the edge of the corner, and all anyone can do is hope the dropoff isn’t too steep. 

Thankfully he reappears, climbing gingerly up the hillside and looking more than a little worse for the wear —right arm bloodied and shoulder drooping in a telltale sign of an injury all too familiar to most cyclists: a broken collarbone. For a moment, it looks like he might call it and get in the team car. Then, improbably, he’s back on his bike a few minutes later, though quite visibly unable to continue under his own power.

It’s the slightest bit undignified — this profoundly proud, eternally capable man being literally pushed along by his teammates. He can’t ride, and everyone knows it. He knows it as well as anyone. 

Pulling to the side of the road, he slides forward off of his saddle and slumps over his handlebars. The team car pulls over to the side of the road, and out steps José Vicente García Acosta. 

Chente, as he’s known to those around him (and anyone who’s seen El Día Menos Pensado on Netflix) is tall, a fair bit more burly than he was in his riding days, and almost endlessly jovial — perhaps just short of a walking dad joke. Right now, though, he’s a picture of concern. He knows Valverde as well as anyone. 

For the last seven years of his seventeen riding for various iterations of the team that is now Movistar, Chente rode alongside a younger Valverde, even supporting him to his lone Vuelta GC victory in 2009. Since retiring, he’s presided over countless race days and dozens of Valverde victories as one of the directors in the car. In all those years, he might never have seen Bala more vulnerable. 

There’s a certain voyeuristic quality to the experience of watching from an aerial shot through the trees, as Chente helps Valverde step over his saddle and embraces him. Valverde has seen much of the best and plenty of the worst this sport has to offer, and all the while has continually projected the same formidable, stoic steadiness throughout. Watching him cry into the chest of one of his oldest friends feels both alien and undeniably humanizing, in roughly equal measure. 

Prior to the crash, he was looking better on the bike than at any point in the last couple of years. You will have heard him described as an “ageless wonder” or something of the sort. It wasn’t hyperbole. 

Father Time, as they say, remains undefeated, but damn if Alejandro Valverde didn’t have him on the ropes before a timely intervention from sheer, brutally cruel luck. Now, Father Time lives to fight another day, and we’ll see on the other side of recovery whether Valverde remains the man to challenge him. A collarbone injury is far from the end of the world, after all. 

It’s another confusing, difficult-to-process moment in the life of one of the sport’s most divisive characters. His career is bisected by a two year doping ban for his role in the Operación Puerto scandal, and for many, a cloud of suspicion lingers around this improbably (some would argue, impossibly) prolific second half of his career. 

Still, whatever your feelings, there remains an undeniable strangeness to watching this race move on without him. He belongs to the Vuelta, and it seems impossible that he should be anywhere else. This is the fifteenth time he’s ridden the race, and the first he’s failed to finish it since he was a twenty-two year old neo-pro. Will his career at La Vuelta be bookended by two DNF’s, almost two decades apart? Time will tell, but I’d be shocked if this is the last time.

So, what else happened up the road anyway? All in all, the GC battle mostly stabilized. Valverde’s crash took much of the sting out of the afternoon, and just about every attack that followed was pretty tame.

Meanwhile in the break, Michael Storer, a talented young Australian with an enormous engine, claimed the biggest win of his young career atop Balcón de Alicante. Is he getting yadda yadda’d in this moment? You bet, and no, I suppose that isn’t ultimately fair. Fingers crossed he’s got plenty of years ahead of him in this sport, and if so, I promise to celebrate him appropriately the next time. If he sticks around half as long as Valverde, we’ll have plenty of chances.

What Friday offered in dramaturgy, Sunday matched in pure sporting spectacle. It’s wild wild west country, Spaghetti Western country, the rolling desert hills, Mars-like and barren save for whatever life manages to find nutrient in clay soil and sharp drops of shale. It’s the backdrop of the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. So it is in La Vuelta.

Somewhat contrary to its reputation as the zany, madcap younger cousin of the other Grand Tours, this Vuelta has opened with a first week characterized by simmering tension in the overall classification. The gaps are small, the contenders are many, and the peloton is always, always nervous. Nobody wants La Vuelta decided in week one by any means, but isn’t it about time we shook things up a little?

Fortunately, today’s final test offers ample opportunity for the first real sort-out in the GC. At thirteen kilometers with an average gradient of just over seven percent, the Alto de Velefique doesn’t look at first glance like a particularly decisive one, particularly when you consider that the four steepest kilometers are right near the start of the climb. 

But, at the back end of a stage featuring over forty-seven hundred meters of climbing in all, and with team leaders suffering in the heat, there's a clear opportunity for an enterprising team or rider to make a move. 

One such move has been made already. With seventy-two kilometers remaining, Damiano Caruso attacked from the breakaway on the lower slopes of the Alto Collado Venta Luisa, and is currently pacing himself toward his second Grand Tour stage of the year, in addition to his second place overall finish at the Giro. 

In the Autumn of a perfectly accomplished career as a high-quality climbing domestique, he has reinvented himself as a daring, swashbuckling mountain raider, and once again his newfound boldness will pay off today. His gap will shrink from over five minutes to little more than one, but he hardly seems concerned. He’s here for the stage, and he will have it. 

Behind, however, the peloton has finally woken up. Over the first few kilometers of the climb, what remains of the peloton is shredded by Pavel Sivakov’s effort on the front. Mikel Landa, who came into this race among the favorites, is already dropped and hemorrhaging time by the second. That alone seems like plenty to consider Sivakov’s pull a success.

But they’re burning through the steepest section, though, and Adam Yates is antsy. Despite his activity so far in the race, he’s still well over a minute behind overall. 

Time to do something about it

Hopping out of the saddle, he puts in his first dig, followed closely by Miguel Ángel López, and closed down in installments by a yoyo-ing Sepp Kuss. In the group behind, Steven Kruijswijk takes up the pacing for leader Primož Roglič, and for the first time this year, looks particularly lively. After his pull is over, however, Roglič is short on options. 

Acting decisively, he opts to close down the group himself, bridging with a seated attack that nobody seems remotely able to follow. With that move, Roglič has avoided momentary danger, but also pushed his chips to the center. Having made such a conspicuous display of his strength, there’s every chance he won’t get much in the way of cooperation from her on out. 

Enric Mas and Egan Bernal make their way across the gap, rejoining the group, and the pace drops. For a moment it appears things have calmed down and the reduced peloton behind is regrouping. Then, suddenly, Yates puts in a dig, setting a furious pace on the front. It’s a curious tactic that will leave its share of onlookers scratching their heads. By all appearances, he seems to be the stronger of the remaining Ineos leaders. So why is he pacing as though working for Bernal?

There is a sentiment among some cycling fans that Ineos, for all its marginal gains, lacks a coherent strategy in any scenario in which they don’t have the race’s strongest rider. 

On current evidence, it certainly seems like one to keep an eye on.

On the strength of Yates’s pull, the same elite group breaks free again: Yates, Bernal, Mas, López, and Roglič. If this is the final selection, it’s less than stellar news for Roglič, who is the only one present without a teammate. Fortunately for him, the group behind is once again clawing its way back in. 

After what was presumably a decoy attack from Richard Carapaz (who ultimately finished over nine minutes behind), Yates goes again, capitalizing heavily on the camera motorbike’s draft. Once again, López closes, followed closely by Roglič (who still has yet to get out of the saddle,) and Mas. 

Suddenly, the race is scattered all over the road, and one man, having saved energy the entire time, is in a position to capitalize. Mas has kept his nose out of the wind, allowing López and Roglič to close moves for him. Now, with Yates presumably fatigued from repeated attacking, and Roglič perhaps dented from repeatedly closing down moves, Mas will strike out on his own.

Or, at least, that would be the plan, If Roglič wasn’t following comfortably, as though glued to his wheel. Mas is faced with a critical choice: refuse to work, and leave it to Roglič to dictate the terms from here onward, or cooperate with him. Mas doesn’t hesitate, continuing to pull. The calculus is simple: He’s not beating Roglič in an uphill sprint to the line no matter the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean today’s efforts have to be useless.

By cooperating with Roglič, he is continually putting time into everyone else in the race, and establishing himself as the clear threat to Roglič’s dominance. Over the final four kilometers, the two cooperate seamlessly, alternating shifts until one hundred and fifty meters to go, at which point Roglič predictably attacks to claim second place on the day, as well as the accompanying bonus seconds. Go figure.

So, where do we stand? Carapaz and Landa saw their GC candidacies die on the Velefique, and their directives will likely shift in the coming days. Bernal came into the Vuelta undercooked, and still recovering from his crash on Burgos less than two weeks out from the start, so growing into the race was always the plan. That said, his lack of form is becoming worrying, and we’re nearing the point at which one more bad day could render his deficit insurmountable. Still, he’s not a two-time Grand Tour winner for nothing.

Bahrain Victorious’s Jack Haig, reintroduced into contention by his performance in the breakaway two days ago, ratified that standing today, and appears a viable sleeper. López, for all his selfless work pacing and closing down moves today, remains in third, just a minute and twenty-one seconds back. 

Roglič continues to impress, displaying equal parts economy and terrific form, but as ever, the question remains his form in the third week. If he continues in the Maillot Rojo all the way to the finish in Santiago de Compostela, it will be the most day’s he’s defended the leader’s jersey in a single Grand Tour. Having crashed out of the Tour early, he should be fresher than in last year’s Vuelta. Still, questions abound. 

Ultimately though, perhaps the rider most worth discussing at the moment is Mas, who as a rule is treated as a viable podium contender, but almost never as a credible candidate to win it all. With under thirty seconds separating him from Roglič, and a track record indicating he’s often at his best in the third week, he is to be underestimated no longer. His performance in the 2018 Vuelta, in which he finished second to Simon Yates as a twenty-three year-old in an admittedly substandard field, heralded him as a bona fide future contender. A few years later, he appears to be making good on that promise.

One week down, and it’s still all to play for. 


Stage 7’s Gino Mäder fun update: it was “Kind of [fun]. It wasn’t too bad, actually, the first climb was ridden at the highest pace, and that one put me quite in a bad place, but I came back, helped Mikel a little, brought some bottles.” Now that he considered it, he’s changed his mind: “But it was fun…until the last two kms.” He laughed. “I don’t know how they even put tarmac down there,” he said, before adding, with a wink, “Going back down — that will be fun.”