La Vuelta Stage 1: Blink and You Could Have Missed It
La Vuelta's short but consequential prologue introduces the main players and sets the stage for the racing to come
The 2021 La Vuelta a Espana opened up with a short, seven-kilometer time trial in the beautiful Northern Spanish city of Burgos. The race started with the dramatic sight of the riders rolling down the entrance to the ancient Burgos Cathedral and finished with an exclamation point from the winner of the last two editions, Primoz Roglic. Roglic wasted no time letting his rivals know that while he crashed out of the Tour de France back in July, that he is back to his best by winning the stage and taking the race’s first leader’s jersey (maillot Rojo).
Roglic’s time gap to second-place finisher Alex Aranburu and his Slovenian countryman Jan Tratnik were relatively small, six and eight seconds, but his time gaps to the other main GC contenders like Richard Carapaz, Egan Bernal, and Adam Yates were larger and potentially foreshadowed that there was more to come in the first week. While the stage was short enough to ensure that nobody fell out of contention on the first day, opening up gaps between 14-40 seconds on the main competition in just seven kilometers of racing is a likely sign that Roglic is simply on another level than the rest and that it will be incredibly difficult for anyone to unseat the reigning champion.
Primoz Roglic +0
Alex Aranburu +6
Jan Tratnik +8
Tom Scully +10
Josef Černý +10
Filtered GC Results:
Stage 1 Race Notebook:
Quinn Simmons, the controversial American rider, starts on a road bike in an attempt to grab the first King of the Mountains jersey. He presumably thinks this will give him an advantage over the others on the opening climb. This doesn’t work of course, and he losses around 10 seconds to Sepp Kuss, who was on a time trial bike. It is interesting that Trek, a team sponsored by a leading bike manufacturer, could be under the impression that a road bike would be faster than their insanely fast TT bike on a 2.4km-long, 3% steep climb. This is a great example that despite a lot of technological advances in recent years, pro cycling is extremely behind-the-times when it comes to processing data and deploying that knowledge in the field.
Movistar’s GC leader Enric Mas almost crashes in a downhill corner. While he ultimately saves it, it costs him a few seconds and shows just how risky it can be to go full-out through the technical sections. If they crash, a rider can lose a large chunk of time chasing a second or two. This is the difficult risk/reward balance a GC leader has to keep in mind in these short time trials.
When Bernal hit the climb, I thought he looked a bit uncomfortable on the bike and appeared to struggle to keep his speed up. I wonder if his crash from the Vuelta a Burgos last week is still bothering him.
Compare Bernal to Roglic, who stays in his aero TT position on the climb and is almost visibly oozing power.
Roglic pushes up and over the climb and rips through the finish line in an extremely aero and power position that powers him to the stage win and the red leader’s jersey.
1) Roglic has very clearly recovered from his crash on stage 3 of the Tour de France. He looked every bit of his dominant self and power almost seemed to be oozing off him as he scorched the 7km-long course. The time gaps might not jump off the page, but over such a short course, these are significant. Roglic took almost a second per kilometer on the second-place finisher, which is almost unheard of, and these short efforts at the beginning of a grand tour can show cracks in the form of GC riders that will open up bigger gaps later in the race.
Roglic’s win, of course, isn’t completely shocking since he just won the Olympic time trial by over a minute, but it does tell us he will be incredibly difficult to beat on his quest for his third-straight overall Vuelta victory.
2) If we start to probe the TT time split data a little bit, we can see that Roglic didn’t pull out his winning margin on the climb, but on the second half of the course, which featured a fairly technical descent.
The bad news for his GC competition is that none of them were faster than him on the climb, and his own teammate, Sepp Kuss, was the only pseudo-serious GC contender to beat him on the first half of the course. In fact, most of the GC contenders were absolutely blown out by Roglic, on both the climb and the descent. I’ve listed the time each major GC contender lost to Roglic over the entire course.
Seconds Lost Per Second to Roglic:
Landa: 5.6s per km
Carthy: 4.8s per km
Bernal: 3.9s per km
Carapaz: 3.6s per km
A. Yates: 2.9s per km
Mas: 2.6s per km
These time gaps are a big deal, not just for the raw time Roglic takes, but what it could mean when we hit harder stages in the near future, and the 33-kilometer TT on the final stage. For example, if he put the same time per kilometer on the other favorites over 33kms, he would take close to three minutes on Hugh Carthy and close to 1.5 minutes on Enric Mas, who was one of the closest GC riders to Roglic.
3) Roglic gets time on his rivals with his great TT ride, but now he should turn his focus on giving away the jersey to a rider like Alex Aranburu and Jan Tratnik on stage 3.
It would be a nightmare for his Jumbo team to have to defend this lead line to line, so gifting the lead away would take pressure off and force a team like Astana or Bahrain to control the race until we get back to the mountains on stage 9.
4) Sepp Kuss, who I wrote off as a stage racer, produced an amazing time trial and clocked extremely fast times on both the climb and the descent.
While Ineos has been getting all the attention regarding their strong team, Jumbo comes out of the first stage with two riders ahead of the first Ineos rider.
If they can keep Kuss high up in the GC, he could be a great card to play to turn the tables on and pressure rival teams, instead of simply sitting back and countering moves.
5) Ineos’ Vuelta is starting just as their Tour ended. With Bernal and Carapaz struggling in the short TT, they once again have multiple leaders clustered together a significant time behind a strong leader on another team.
I have to imagine they won’t want to consolidate behind Adam Yates, who had a decent ride today but has never had a grand tour podium in his career, until they absolutely have to, but with Bernal and Carapaz so far back after just 7kms, things could get incredibly difficult for a British squad.
Yates will feel emboldened and like he deserves the support of the team, which he arguably does, but Bernal/Carapaz are still relatively close and none of the three will be jumping at the chance to throw their own GC chances away just yet to work for the other just yet.
One thing to keep in mind is that if the team fails to form a clear hierarchy, it could become a serious issue since we will have a few difficult stages in the first week and they could easily run into a situation where they end up in different groups on the road and have to decide to sit up and wait for their teammate or ride for themselves.
I’m generally a fan of the strongest riders on a team riding their own race, but this could get dicey. If Yates is having a great first week and leaves Bernal or Carapaz, who lose time as a result, the team could pay for those time losses if the form is reversed in the third week. This is the classic problem with the ‘let the road decide’ strategy.
6) Last year’s third-place finisher, Hugh Carthy, had a slightly disappointing time trial.
The 33-second loss to Roglic isn’t critical, but as I said above, it points to a likely large difference in form/current ability.
And it isn’t clear where Carthy can take the time back. Outside of a few stages in the past few years, Roglic has been the far better climber.
7) Vlasov has a great ride and could be showing an intention to challenge for his first-ever grand tour podium.
8) Enric Mas, like Vlasov, has a great time trial and is one of the only GC riders to stay anywhere close to Roglic.
Mas lacks the ability to put large chunks of time into the best riders in the mountains, so days like today, where he takes time on riders like Bernal, Carapaz, Landa, are huge for him.
9) Bahrain, who I liked coming into this race, had one of the worst days out of any team.
Mikel Landa lost close to six seconds per kilometer to Roglic, which is almost incomprehensibly bad. This, combined with his up-and-down performances over the last two weeks, it seems like his form isn’t 100% back since his crash at the Giro.
Mark Padun, who I thought could be an interesting option for Bahrain in the GC, has an even worse day and will start stage 2 nearly 40-seconds behind Roglic after just seven kilometers of racing.
10) It was extremely hot on the course today, and if this weather keeps up, it will be very draining on the riders. This is something to keep an eye on as the race progresses since we could see riders crack seemingly out of nowhere and take massive time losses in a single stage.
Stage 2 Preview & Predictions
Tomorrow’s 166-kilometer flat stage, which oddly takes the peloton back to Burgos, might look easy, but don’t be fooled by looks. The wind has been blowing across Northern Spain in the last few days and if it keeps up tomorrow, we could see echelons form and massive time gaps open up between the GC favorites.
Crosswinds and echelons have been a key feature of the recent Vuelta and tomorrow could very well produce bigger time gaps than the biggest mountain stages.
It will be incredibly important for the teams of the GC riders to keep them towards the front of the race to avoid being caught by splits in the crosswinds.
Prediction: Ineos attempts to use the crosswinds to blow the race up and distance Roglic, but the Slovenian’s Jumbo team keeps him at the front. The effort does however drop Carthy, Padun, and Landa. Alpecin-Fenix’s Belgian sprinter Jasper Philipsen, coming off a handful of Tour de France podium stage finishes, finally gets a stage win.
BTP Fantasy League Update:
Bala El Bufalo, Cofidis is Vampires & Dave`s Roses start off strong and are sitting 1st, 2nd & 3rd after the opening stage. A theme between the three teams was picking Roglic plus either Aranburu or Craddock, both of whom were fairly inexpensive but surprised with great rides in the TT.