La Vuelta Stage 17: The Battle of Covadonga
An iconic climb produces one of the best mountain stages of the season
The Vuelta a España seriously kicked into gear today when it visited the iconic summit finish at Lagos de Covadonga, which, in addition being the location of the Battle of Covadonga, the inaugural event of the Reconquista, will be remembered as the spot where cycling finally got to see the mano a mano battle between two of the sport’s dominate riders, Egan Bernal and Primož Roglič. Both riders entered the climb together ahead of the rest of the field, but by the top of the stunningly beautiful climb, Roglič had dispatched Bernal, won the stage, taken the red leader’s jersey, and significantly increased his overall lead to Enric Mas to 2’22 from a mere 35-seconds at the beginning of the stage. In short, it was potentially the most impressive performance of Roglič’s career.
The stage’s extremely high pace meant that the breakaway was never able to build up a significant advantage, and when the peloton hit the penultimate climb, Ineos saw an opportunity to turn the screws and sent their remaining riders to the front to increase the pace to launch a long-range Bernal attack. The extremely bold move seemed to catch everyone but Roglič, who went with Bernal without hesitation, off-guard. After a hair-raising descent, that seemed destined to be the sight of yet another tragic Roglič crash, the Slovenian didn’t hesitate to work with Bernal in the ensuing valley, which signaled he was all-in on the move since he would be at a massive disadvantage were they to be caught by the chasers on the final climb.
In the end, Roglič’s gamble paid off since he was able to drop Bernal on the toughest slopes of the climb and power away from the disjointed chase group, which seemed more interested in jockeying amongst themselves for the remaining podium positions than chasing down Roglič in order to salvage their chances of winning the race. Jumbo-Visma polished off their dream day with Roglič’s teammate Sepp Kuss grabbing second place on the stage, and now head into tomorrow, the race’s final mountain stage, with a comfortable lead and a long final time trial. The top two in the GC pre-stage, Odd Christain Eiking, and Guillaume Martin, finally ended their cinderella run by losing significant time and falling down to 11th and 5th places overall.
Stage Top Five:
Primož Roglič +0
Sepp Kuss +1’35
Miguel Ángel López +1’35
Adam Yates +1’35
Jack Haig +1’35
Select GC Stage Results w/Time Bonuses:
Current GC Top Ten:
Stage 17 Race Notes:
148.5km-98km: The stage starts incredibly hard with so many riders trying to get into the breakaway, but never getting a large gap. This means groups just keep attempting to get off the front, which keeps the pace very high.
97.6km: With nearly 100km still remaining, the race leader Odd Christain Eiking is already in trouble and struggling to maintain contact with the front group.
61km: On the penultimate climb, Pavel Sivakov is ramping the pace up for Bernal, who then launches an attack roughly halfway up the climb. The only rider to respond is Roglic. Sepp Kuss attempts to go with them but quickly drops back. I’m surprised neither Movistar rider responds.
56.4km: At the top of the climb, Bernal and Roglic have pulled out a modest 42-second gap while Bahrain has multiple riders chasing behind for Jack Haig. At this point, the advantage is with the chase group, who will reel in Bernal/Roglic in the valley at this rate.
52.7km: Bernal is pushing the pace on the descent and starts to put time into the chase group. But, this isn’t without risk, we see him lose control in a corner and just barely keep himself upright. Note that Bernal is on rim brakes while Roglic, who appears to be much more under control, is on disc brakes, which are much better in the rain.
18.8km: After getting down the descent and taking more time, Roglic decides to work with Bernal in the valley, and the two riders are really going for it and have increased their lead to 2’03 due to Movistar refusing to pull in the group behind. The risk here is that they go too deep before the final climb, don’t pull out a large enough of an advantage, and then are caught and dropped by the chasers. This means the safe move for Roglic would be to sit on Bernal’s wheel and do nothing, but this would also limit his potential time gain on the stage.
10.8km: On the lower slopes of the final climb, Bahrain is setting a hard pace and have lowered the gap to Roglic/Bernal down to 1’22. They drop Martin and Eiking is around 5-minutes off the back.
7.5km: Roglic, sensing weakness in Bernal, increases the pace, which almost immediately drops Bernal. Roglic’s cadence is extremely high and his pedal stroke is incredibly smooth, while Bernal looks like he has cracked. This might seem like a long way from the finish to attack, but the climb gets much easier at the top, so Roglic has to put time into Bernal and the others right now.
4.1km: Mas attacks, even though the only rider he needs to attack, Roglic, is almost two minutes up the road. This attack only lowers the pace of the group, while Mas needs to be focused on keeping the pace as high as possible to limit his losses to Roglic. Also, with Bernal dangling a minute in front of them, they need to focus on catching and then dropping him before they get to the final kilometer, which is much easier.
600m: The chase group, which hasn’t been working together and has been climbing at a snail’s pace, as shown by the fact that they haven’t pulled back a single second on Roglic since 4km-to-go and have actually lost time to him since 10km-to-go, finally catches Bernal. Kuss attacks, but this is just as the road flattens out, which allows Bernal to catch on to the back of the group.
Finish: Coming into the final line, Kuss is sprinting incredibly aggressively for second place while Roglic is already descending back down the road right towards them. I don’t love the fact that Kuss has been increasing the pace and limiting the gap from Mas to Roglic, but at this point, he needs to get 2nd place to soak up the time bonuses.
1) Roglic, who has battled the narrative that he fades in the third week of grand tours, is clearly surging going into the final few stages and is better now than he has been at any other point in the race.
He and his Jumbo team’s decision to almost willingly pass up opportunities to take time by riding more conservatively in the first two weeks was vindicated today.
When Roglic dropped Bernal with 7.5km-to-go, he had a 1’41 gap on the chase group and he almost has this exact gap at the finish line. This is incredibly impressive and shows that he is simply the strongest rider at this race.
Outside of winning on an iconic climb, Roglic’s big victory today is overpowering the Movistar duo and pounding them into submission with his attack.
Oddly, Roglic was only able to accomplish this due to Bernal, who snapped the elastic with his move, pulled Roglic up and over the penultimate climb, and paced him through the ensuing valley.
If Roglic would have been forced to wait to attack until the final climb, he might have only been able to pull out a few seconds, if any, on Mas, considering he actually rode the final climb at around the same pace as the Mas group.
2) Bernal’s attack was unexpected, impressive, and admirable, but also carried a lot of risks. But, this is why we love Bernal and why the season’s best grand tour mountain stages have almost all had him racing in them.
I specifically said in yesterday’s podcast that Bernal wouldn’t attack before the final climb and said in yesterday’s post that ‘nothing’ would happen today. I was happily proven wrong, but the reason for my thinking was that an attack prior to the final climb carried significant risk.
With so much distance between the two final climbs and such a difficult grade for the first 2/3’s of the final ascent, using too much energy too early meant that a rider could be easily caught and dropped by a chase group, who was riding much easier in the valley in between climbs.
3) But, the chase group let Bernal off the hook by slowing down towards the top of the climb and not catching Bernal on the steeper slopes and blowing by him, which is bike racing 101.
This meant he essentially was allowed to take a huge risk with his attack and not suffer any immediate downsides.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t pay the price on tomorrow’s brutal final climb.
4) Jack Haig is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the stalemate towards the top of the climb.
He was seriously struggling inside the final few kilometers, but instead of lifting the pace to put him away, the front group looked at each other and let Gino Mader pace him back on.
This could very well determine the final podium since Lopez needs to wedge more time between himself and Haig to hold his top 3 positions overall.
5) Movistar’s tactics today were incredibly conservative, almost to the point of giving up. By refusing to send a rider with Bernal/Roglic or chase in the valley, they essentially have given up on winning the race so they can potentially land two riders on the podium.
This slowing of the pace in the GC group on the final climb, despite two Movistar riders present, shows the problem with the multi-leader strategy.
If the team was consolidated behind Mas, they could have had Lopez drive the pace to keep the gap to Roglic in check, or if Mas was working for Lopez, he could have driven the pace to distance Bernal and Haig once it was clear they were in trouble, since both of whom could end up in 3rd place overall.
But what makes the least sense was Mas and Lopez attacking the chase group. The rider they need to be attacking being 1.5 minutes ahead of them and at that point, they only needed to keep the pace in the group high to limit their losses,
The logical decision would have been for them to share the work of setting pace in the group.
If Lopez ends up finishing off the podium and Mas in 2nd place overall, the decision to not have Lopez work to peg back Roglic will look even worse.
6) Lagos de Covadonga is an iconic climb, and, at least as far as the winning ride is concerned, the stage lived up to the hype.
You could make a compelling argument that this is the best performance of Roglic’s career.
Since he burst onto the scene a few years ago, he has been dogged by claims that his riding style is too mechanical and that his tactic of destroying the time trials and hanging on in the mountains was dull.
But, today, he responded to Bernal’s attack when almost all logic would have advised against it, before dropping the former Tour champion and riding a good portion of the Vuelta’s iconic climb solo.
You could tell by the way the normally subdued rider literally screamed as he crossed the finish line that this win meant a lot and seemed to be a statement to critics, and perhaps even rival teams, who were sure he’d crater in the third week.
7) Bernal’s attack made the stage exciting, but if we just step back and look at the time gaps, the end results of the stage are somewhat orderly and, outside of Roglic’ relatively large gap to second place, pretty much in line with what we’ve seen so far.
The stage was much more exciting and difficult than I expected, not due to all-out attacks from GC teams, but because of the furious, all-day pace due to riders attempting, and failing, to form a breakaway.
8) Jumbo gets 1-2 on the stage but the Kuss acceleration heading into the final kilometer arguably pulled Mas along and helped the Spaniard limit his losses.
I assume the move was an attempt to get clear during the lull to ride for the stage win and this is obviously a massive nitpick, but I still found it odd Kuss was increasing the pace in the chase group while he is sitting 8th overall.
9) One possible reason Jumbo could be okay with Kuss leading the chase group is that they simply aren’t concerned about Roglic’s time gap since they sense that the rest of the field, save for Bernal, has essentially given up on winning the race overall.
The Mas group was riding the final climb like they were the lead group on the road and showed little interest in pegging back Roglic and limiting that gap.
Instead, they were all preoccupied with each other and their fight for second place.
10) It is hard to argue with success, but at the time, Roglic’s decision to go with Bernal seemed foolish, and could have seriously backfired, especially if he would have crashed on the descent. With multiple teammates in the lead GC group behind, he appeared to have little to gain by taking the risk of following Bernal.
However, the big payoff was that he had Bernal working as hard as he could in the valley in-between the climbs, while the chase group crept down the descent and didn’t have its strongest riders pulling in the valley.
This allowed him to pull out a massive advantage in-between the two climbs and netted him 1.5 minutes on Mas, whom he hasn’t really been able to outclimb all race.
And the argument against staying with the group and letting Bernal go is stage 19 of the 2018 Giro, where Froome pulled out a massive advantage on the descent after Tom Dumoulin decided to sit up and wait for the others behind.
Stage 18 Preview & Predictions:
Tomorrow’s 162-kilometer stage is eerily similar to today’s, except with 16,000 ft (5,000m) of climbing capped off by a 15km-long, 10% final climb, it is even harder than what the peloton just had to face.
It is hard to imagine Roglic attacking again after his massive performance today, but his rivals have to try something, which could mean the peloton comes to the base of the climb racing for the win and Roglic decides the best form of defense is offense.
It will be interesting to see if Bernal has anything left in the tank after his massive move today. If he does, he will try to attack again, but this time, I would bet he waits until the final climb.
Outside of Bernal, the only rider who needs more time is Miguel Ángel López, who won’t be comfortable heading into the final time trial with only around 30-seconds on Haig and a minute on Bernal.
Prediction: Once again, the fight for the breakaway is so intense that it increases the pace to a level that a breakaway can’t get the gap it needs, which sees the GC leaders riding for the stage win on the final climb. Bernal and Roglic get away from the rest of the contenders towards the top of the climb, but Roglic can’t be stopped, and he rides to yet another stage win.