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La Vuelta Stage 11: A Brief but Brutal Test Reveals We Only Have Two Real GC Contenders
A vintage Vueltaian short, steep finishing climb opens up surprisingly large GC gaps
The Vuelta a España kept its streak of exciting stages alive as it headed inland from the Mediterranean and tackled the lumpy and picturesque terrain of Andalusia. An early breakaway got away, but the Jumbo-Visma, dead set on keeping the race together so their leader Primož Roglič could contest the stage win on the brutally steep climb featured in the final kilometer of the race, never let them get a serious gap and duly delivered Roglič to victory over his GC rival Enric Mas.
With a few kilometers left on the stage, it appeared to be deja-vu all over again with EF's Magnus Cort dangling a few seconds off the front of the race as he hit the wall to the finish line. For a moment, the impossible seemed possible, as the gap to Cort head steady while Mas and Roglič shadow-boxed at the front. But, with just under 100 meters remaining, Roglič accelerated and preceded to roglify everything in his path. He overtook a struggling Cort like he was standing still and even put three seconds between himself and Mas on his way to the stage win, and with it, the ever-so-valuable time bonus seconds. When the dust had settled, Roglič had put seven seconds into Mas, eleven into Miguel Ángel López, and a whopping 21-seconds into Egan Bernal, which are staggering sums of time on what was essentially an uphill sprint stage.
Stage Top Five:
Primož Roglič +0
Enric Mas +3
Miguel Ángel López +5
Jack Haig +7
Adam Yates +7
GC Stage Results w/Time Bonuses:
Current GC Top 10:
Stage 11 Race Notebook:
52.3km: Jumbo, who has actively tried to avoid the leader’s jersey all race long to avoid doing work at the front to control the race, picks one of the only days they aren’t in the race lead to set the pace at the front. We can see they have a rider in front of the race leader Odd Christian Eiking and his Intermarché team. This is unorthodox and looks unusual, but they clearly like the stage finish for Roglic and think it is worth the work to grab the win and ensuing time bonus/real-time gaps.
12km: On the lead-in to the finish, BikeExchange is working, for Michael Matthews presumably, but this finish is likely going to be far too hard for him. This is an odd move, but their work, combined with Movistar getting ready to set pace behind, is helping Roglic reel in the stubborn Magnus Cort.
800m: When they hit the steep climb to the finish just inside the final kilometer, we can see Cort dangling 20-seconds off the front as the peloton rips through the corner at the bottom of the climb. This pinch point at the bottom means anyone who wants to win the stage has to be in the first few positions.
600m: Roglic attempts to attack Mas, but the Spaniard is ready for it and accelerates to try to beat Roglic into an upcoming narrow section.
200m: After some argy-bargy and elbow bumping, Mas tries to attack heading into the final few hundred meters, but it backfires somewhat as Roglic jumps onto his wheel and uses the acceleration as his own leadout.
Finish: Roglic explodes off Mas’ wheel with an impressive acceleration. Mas tries to limit his losses to Roglic but still comes in a few seconds down. And the time gaps to the rest are somewhat shocking for a sub-kilometer climb.
1) The crash, at least for now, clearly isn’t affecting Roglic. He looked incredibly strong on the final climb and put an absurd amount of time into his rivals by attacking in the final 50 meters.
These are time gaps you might see on a long, alpine climb, but he opened them up at the end of a fairly short sprint.
He also grabbed the winning time bonus of 10-seconds, and these bonus seconds have been absolutely key to his GC career.
Something to watch for is Roglic closing in on the sprint competition. With his win today, he now sits in second place, and the uphill finishes to come will provide him with more chances to close the gap to current leader Fabio Jakobsen.
2) He and his Jumbo team appear to be employing a slightly different strategy than in years past. Instead of blitzing every uphill finish in the first week, holding in the second week, and then slightly fading in the third, they appear to be building towards the third week, only getting overly aggressive today by grabbing time bonuses, stage win, and slightly prying open the gap to Mas at the finish line.
After skirting pacemaking responsibilities all race, they oddly wait until they are out of the race lead to hit the front and keep the breakaway on an extremely short leash.
In the end, it was the right decision as far as the stage win was concerned. If they would have given Magnus Cort any more time, he would have stolen the stage win just as he did on stage 6.
This ‘plan passive’ appears to be almost exclusively the team’s decision, since Roglic’s director Addy Engels said after yesterday’s stage that it was Roglic’s idea to attack, and, if Roglic wanted to do something, what was he to do? One could argue that it is literally his job to advise his riders on the correct strategy during the race.
3) I’m incredibly interested to see how this new strategy plays out. I can see why they would attempt such a shift in strategy, but I’m not completely convinced it is the right move.
For example, Roglic had trouble distancing Mas today early on the climb, and could only get distance between him and his biggest rival in the final sprint to the line.
Compare this to stage 6, where Roglic appeared to have Mas on the ropes early on the final climb but waited until the final 100 meters to attack. If he would have pressed his advantage further out there and pushed harder for the winning time bonus, he could have a minute’s advantage right now and be facing less pressure to take time.
Whether it is better to strike while the iron is hot and take time early in the race, or ‘conserve’ energy by playing it cool until later in the race, is an interesting debate that pro cycling’s decision-makers clearly haven’t quite yet solved.
One major hurdle to ever coming to an answer is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, and that what works for one rider might not work for another.
4) Movistar loses time, but overall, has another superb day. Mas looks better than ever, and Lopez, who has struggled to find consistency in recent seasons, is getting through days like today, which don’t particularly suit him, without losing any significant time.
This positive brings us to a lingering issue with the team; with both Mas and Lopez riding the races of their lives, how do they decide who to back for the win?
The most likely, and most boring answer, could be that they simply won’t, and Lopez and Mas will continue to posture as though they have an advantage over Roglic with their numbers but will continue to ride their own races onto the podium.
Another thing to consider is that Lopez is one of the worst time trialists of the GC contenders in the pro peloton, which makes it nearly impossible for Movistar to pivot to a Lopez leadership strategy unless Mas has a complete implosion.
Additionally, his lack of TT ability will make it harder for Movistar to squeeze Roglic by sending Lopez up the road in an attack. Roglic could realistically spot Lopez three minutes at this point and still overtake him in the final TT.
5) Bernal loses an additional 21-seconds (11 in real-time plus 10 time bonus seconds) on only a 1km-long climb. This continues the trend of him losing time to Roglic on explosive and steep uphill finishes.
I’ve heard the argument that Bernal simply isn’t good at steep, uphill finishes, but he was dominating early in the Giro on finishes almost exactly like these.
And while he was doing that, the narrative was that he is a punchy rider who isn’t good on long, sustained climbs. It feels like no rider has the narrative flip flop around their skills, contrary to any evidence, as much as Bernal.
And if he isn’t good at steep, uphill finishes, then the Vuelta is always going to be difficult for him, since those can make up a significant portion of the race.
6) Adam Yates, Bernal’s teammate, gained time on Bernal today, but still lost 17-seconds (7 real seconds + 10 time bonus seconds), to Roglic.
He is potentially emerging as Ineos’ stronger GC rider at the race, but the problem is that he is supposed to be a specialist on these finishes, but is losing time to riders like Mas, Roglic, and even Haig, on these punchy finishes.
The big problem is that Yates is not a strong time trialist and tends to struggle on hard climbs late in grand tours, so if he is losing time now, he will likely leak even more time to the other GC riders later in the race.
7) Jack Haig, just like yesterday, has inserted himself as a serious podium contender. For two consecutive days, he has appeared just as strong as Lopez, and stronger than Yates.
If he can continue to hold this position and performs well in the final TT, a grand tour podium is well within reach.
8) BikeExchange spent a significant portion of the stage pacing on the front with Jumbo today. This was presumably to keep the breakaway close enough so Michael Matthews could contest the stage win, but he was never going to be able to contest the stage win with pitches close to 30%.
But, this shows the pressure they are now under to deliver a result in this race.
This willingness to work to contest stage wins on days that don’t quite suit them could significantly alter stages, as well as the GC battle.
9) The top two riders in the GC, Guillaume Martin and Odd Christian Eiking, both lost time to Roglic, but finished with the Bernal group 11-seconds back.
This means with time bonuses they shipped 21-seconds back to Roglic, but still remain in the GC game.
I think that ultimately, Roglic and Mas will shred their current advantage, but I’m not so sure about the rest of the GC field.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on them to see how long they can hold their advantage, and then at what point the other podium counters like Yates, Haig, and Lopez start to ride specifically to get rid of them instead of focusing on Roglic.
10) In the final few hundred meters of the stage, there was a moment where Mas and Roglc were even at the front of the race and literally just staring at each other. I think this tells us two major points.
One is that these two will be the major GC protagonists from here on out. They are clearly the strongest two riders in the race, and while they were looking at each other, no other tied to, or could, capitalize on this with an attack and bet neither rider will chase it.
It also tells us that Mas lost time to Roglic not because he was surprised by his move, but because he simply isn’t as strong as Roglic, which will make it difficult for him to find places to take time on Roglic.
Stage 12 Preview & Predictions:
The race stays in Andalusia for a 175-kilometer jaunt between Jaén and Córdoba.
This parcours, with a net downhill first 100-meters, and two sizable ramps before the finish has breakaway written all over it.
And back in the GC group, I think the final climb, at 20kms from the line, is simply too far out for any contenders to launch a serious move.
Prediction: The fight for the breakaway is fierce, but a strong group eventually gets clear. Dylan van Baarle, an incredibly strong and versatile rider who just missed out on a win on stage 10, wins the stage. Back in the GC group, there is shadow-boxing, but no real attacks as Jumbo finally controls the pace in the peloton.