La Vuelta Stage 20: Explosive Racing & Zombie Breakaways

One of the craziest stages of the year blows up the overall standings & delivers an unbelievable win

The brutal 20th stage of the Vuelta a España through the forever rolling terrain of the Galacian countryside might have lacked any major mountain passes, but served up what very well could be the most exciting day of grand tour racing of the season. After his early breakaway was dropped and dispatched by the main GC contenders a few kilometers earlier, previously unknown rider Clément Champoussin on AG2R-Citroën came back from the dead to surge past the stunned favorites and hold them off over the extremely steep final two kilometers to win the stage.

Team Ineos, determined to go down swinging, lived up to their pre-stage battle cry, but in the end, seemed to be mortally wounded by the errant hacking of their own sword. After burning their few remaining available domestiques by riding an extremely high pace over the extremely difficult course that melted the breakaway’s gap and softened the legs of the GC contenders, Egan Bernal threw down yet another long-range attack. But, it was clear Bernal lacked the same magic he possessed in the recent mountain stages, and when his teammate Adam Yates unleashed the race-defining counterattack a few moments later, Bernal couldn’t respond and was sent tumbling down the overall standings.

Yates powered clear of what remained of the peloton with Jack Haig, Gino Mader, Primoz Roglic, and Enric Mas in his midst. This meant that even with the chaotic racing of the day, the top two riders in the race were both sitting comfortably in the front GC group and the explosive stage’s effects on the top of the overall standings were slightly dulled. But, the stage did pack a stunning moment when Miguel Ángel López, who was sitting 3rd place overall at the start of the stage, simply got his bike and dropped out of the race mid-stage after being so upset with his Movistar teammate team’s inability to assist him in following Yates attack, which ended up being one of the most important moves of the three-week race. This nearly unprecedented action will set up an extremely awkward off-season since Movistar just recently signed Lopez to a new two-year contract extension.

Stage Top Five:
Clément Champoussin +0
Primož Roglič +6
Adam Yates +8
Enric Mas +8
Jack Haig +12

GC Stage Results w/Time Bonuses:
Roglič +0
Yates +4
Mas +8
Haig +12
Bernal +6’55
Kuss +7’40

Current GC Top Ten:

Stage 20 Race Notes:

106km: The early breakaway is both massive and full of strong riders. Their gap quickly gets up to 12-minutes, and it seems obvious the day will be one for the break and there will be little action in the peloton behind.

93km: Jumbo is setting a half-hearted pace at the front of the peloton as the gap to the break is at 11’54. Michael Storer is winning KOM points out front and defending his lead in the competition.

78.3km: Ineos has come to the front of the peloton and is quickly burning through what remains of their domestique core. They have brought the gap to the break down to 7’17, but with only two workers left this far out, a long-range attack from Bernal is clearly imminent.

59.9km: 20kms later on the following climb, the gap has fallen nearly three more minutes down to 4’48. Right before Ineos runs out of domestiques, Adam Yates comes to the front and sets an extremely hard pace.

57.6km: Shortly after, Bernal attacks, and is followed closely by Jack Haig, but interestingly, Roglic doesn’t respond and is sitting towards the back of the group next to Enric Mas. This tells me Roglic is confident in his teammate Steven Kruijswijk’s ability to close the gap, doesn’t think Bernal’s attack will stick and is really only worried about Mas at this point.

57.5km: As Roglic suspected, Bernal is quickly reeled in by Kruijswijk. Bernal’s teammate Adam Yates wastes no time counterattacking. He is followed by Haig’s teammate Gino Mader, and smartly, Roglic swings around the entire group to jump on his wheel.

57.4km: The following moments are perhaps the most important of the race. We can see Mas and Haig recognize immediately that they need to be up the road and start to bridge. Bernal, right on his wheel, can’t respond and looks like he is absolutely dying from his earlier attack.

57.3km: At this point, the gap between the two groups looks insignificant, but looks are deceiving and this is unbridgeable. Notice Wout Poels, sitting in last wheel and radioing up to his two teammates in the front to start riding as hard as they can to distance Lopez and Bernal.

57km: Mader responds to Poel’s info by getting to the front of the group and driving the pace as hard as he can. The group behind isn’t even visible at this point and Bahrain’s coordination is the key to this group’s effectiveness.

35.9km: The Bahrain pace is so high that it almost immediately breaks the chase group of Lopez, and 20kms later, he is stuck back with a group of dropees who have zero interest in helping him chase. This shows just how important it is to be on the right side of mid-stage splits.

35.5km: Mark Padun, who was off the front in the breakaway, is called back by his Bahrain team to join Mader and Haig. This is the nail in the coffin for the Lopez chase group and puts a stage win on the table.

6.2km: When they hit the final climb, a single rider, Ryan Gibbons, has a 51-second lead. Yates attacks, since he needs to distance Haig to have a chance at the podium.

5.7km: Yates does drop Haig, but then inexplicably sits up when he hits a flatter section, which lets the bigger Haig to grind up his big gear and reel them in, thus nullifying the attack.

3.5km: Yates attacks, again and again, distances Haig. The acceleration sees the group catch Gibbons.

2.9km: But oddly, Yates sits up once again which allows Haig to catch back on.

1.7km: Roglic continues to keep Yates and anyone else who attacks to win the stage in check, but Clément Champoussin, who was in the early breakaway and had been dropped early on the climb, comes out of absolutely nowhere and blows by the GC contenders while they are slowed up and staring at each other.

1.6km: Oddly, Roglic, who has marked everyone on this climb so far and seemed dead-set on winning the stage, doesn’t pick up the pace to respond as Champoussin’s gap balloons.

Finish: Champoussin, looking like he may run into the barriers, takes the win ahead of a quickly-closing Roglic.

Ten Takeaways:

1) This was a great stage and one of the craziest grand tour stages in a while. The Vuelta organizers deserve a massive shoutout for planning the route selection and placement.

  • The spicy racing far from the finish meant that if Primoz Roglic hadn’t have had the presence of mind to go with the Yates move, he could very well have lost the race lead to Enric Mas.

  • But when the dust settles, only 3rd place changes and it doesn’t have the GC implications that other recent third week Vuelta stages have had.

  • It might have been a great stage, but the TV coverage was awful. It felt like we were missing massive chunks of the race and hugely important moments all day. For example, we completely missed Lopez’s dramatic abandon.

2) Clément Champoussin gets his first professional win with an incredible victory on a memorable stage.

  • I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an early breakaway caught, dropped, and then one of the riders from that breakaway ride back up to the group that dropped him and then blow by them to win the stage.

3) Ineos said they were willing to risk it all to win the race today, and they certainly did that, but I feel like we have to ask what the point of all that was if Yates wasn’t even going to race for the GC once they dropped Bernal.

  • If we just take stock of their spoils, they turn 5th and 6th on the GC into 4th and 6th and sit a minute off the podium with one stage remaining.

  • But, they fail to win the stage, pass up a golden opportunity for Yates to put 20-30 seconds into Haig before the final time trial, and send Bernal out of GC contention.

  • Bernal attacking did draw out Lopez and is the reason Yates was able to distance him with his counterattack, but in my opinion, it comes at a huge cost.

  • I’m not sure their GC position is any stronger now than before the stage, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if Bernal could have closed the 1’50 gap to Lopez in the time trial.

  • Perhaps one valid excuse for their strange decision to ride away from Bernal is that the Giro winner simply knew he didn’t have the legs to dislodge Roglic and knew the team should back Yates instead. However, Yates, who is still searching for his first career grand tour podium, didn’t ride as he needed to distance Haig and get onto the podium on the climb.

  • Instead, he seemed to favor getting the stage win, which is something they could have done without doing as much to Bernal’s GC chances.

  • Yates just needed 20-30 seconds on Haig on the final climb to give himself a chance at overtaking Haig in the time trial tomorrow for the final podium place, but he kept sitting up on the flatter sections after dropping Haig with his attacks.

  • This poor strategy and lack of ability to choose between a chance at a stage win and dropping Haig are a continuation of Ineos’ inability to consolidate behind a single goal all season long.

4) Bernal, after dazzling in the mountains over the last few stages, seemed to regress after being unable to finish off the work from his team and being unable to respond to the key Yates move with 57km-to-go.

  • This regression and tumbling down the GC makes it difficult to know where to rank Bernal among the current GC stars.

  • He burst onto the scene by winning the 2019 Tour de France at 22-years-old, but since the rise of Tadej Pogacar, he hasn’t appeared to be able to match the level as the superstar Slovenian.

  • Even still, he has ridden with incredible class at this Vuelta, despite never seeming to really hit his stride. Compare this to Lopez, who dropped out of the race after failing to reach his personal goal.

5) Movistar’s double podium dream fails spectacularly in the span of a few moments.

  • This is a disaster for a team that has become a meme and is known more for their boneheaded tactics than on-road success in recent seasons.

  • Part of their problem was that they only had five riders left at the beginning of the stage, which meant there were no domestiques present to help Lopez close the gap to the Bahrain duo.

  • And their dual-leader strategy meant that with five riders, they only had three available workers.

  • I’ve heard chatter that Lopez thought Mas should have waited for him and helped pace him back to the group, but this is absurd. A rider sitting 2nd place overall has to race for themselves and can’t risk it all to attempt to pace a dropped teammate back up.

  • If Mas would have waited, Roglic would have joined the Bahrain duo in setting pace, and he too would have been jettisoned out the back and Movistar would have been left with nothing.

6) Miguel Angel Lopez, sitting 3rd at the start of the stage, left the race mid-stage after being upset he missed the move and the team didn’t have any domestiques up the road to drop back and help him close the gap.

  • But, the teammate one-two attack is bike racing 101, and the fact that he missed a move everyone should have seen coming means that perhaps he simply didn’t have the legs to respond.

  • This could be the end of Lopez’s GC career since, this, combined with other incidents, like getting off his bike on the final stage of the 2019 Giro to beat up a fan, will make it hard to argue in the future that any team should invest resources in him to lead a grand tour. If the team can’t count on you to finish a race while sitting top-ten when there are serious WorldTour points on the line for the team, then they can’t sacrifice chances for others to take time during the race to help your GC campaign.

  • For example, he could have set pace to peg back Roglic on stage 17, but the team made the decision to let Roglic go to preserve their two podium spots.

  • As we saw on stage 18, his raw climbing ability is almost unmatched, but it’s always been the rest of the sport that has caused him problems.

  • This doesn’t look good for a rider who hasn’t gotten on a grand tour podium since 2018.

7) This stage is interesting since it produces more GC shuffling than we’ve had all race, but it lacked any climb over a cat 3.

  • It shows that the big set-piece mountain stages, while hyped up, can actually deter attacking since all the action gets boiled down to one or two sections where only watts per kilos matter. But these all-day rolling stages strip out that predictability and stoke far more dynamic racing where mid-stage split-second decisions can be the difference between minutes at the finish line.

8) Roglic’s tactics all day were perfect, but his strategy on the final climb was curious.

  • At one point, he accelerated and pulled back Ryan Gibbons, but when Champoussin made the winning attack, he simply let him go.

  • In a vacuum, this makes sense, why would he pull back a rider for no reason other than to win yet another stage? But if that was his thinking, why pull back Gibbons when he attacked earlier?

  • The Twitter rumors are that he simply wanted to punish UAE for beating him at the 2020 Tour, but I suspect the true answer is much more boring. Perhaps Roglic thought he could ride away and win from the group of contenders he was in, but when Champoussin blew by him with such pace, that he simply didn’t feel like it was worth risking going so deep following him.

  • Gifting stages has been an extremely controversial topic over in the BTP chatroom, but, the simple fact is that it isn’t great optics for Roglic to mow down an unknown rider in the final meters of a stage to get his 4th stage win of the race.

9) The day was so crazy that Sepp Kuss lost over seven minutes and didn’t lose a single spot in the GC.

  • He might not have lost any positions, but this is a massively blown opportunity and could even have been fatal for Jumbo’s GC chances. If Roglic would have missed the Mas/Haig split, Jumbo would have been incredibly short-handed when trying to peg back the move.

  • Also, had Kuss stayed with Roglic, he would have moved into the top-five overall.

  • His inability to be at the front during the most important stage of the race shows why he isn’t a viable GC contender.

10) Bahrain wins the day from a GC perspective and their teamwork during the stage was incredibly impressive. They move up into third overall by simply riding smart, playing defense during Ineos’ flex, and then striking hard when they got a shot at the jugular.

  • Instead of putting their entire team on the front to show off their strength as Ineos did, they put a rider into the break, then sat back and waited until the others overextended themselves and then stepped on the gas to exploit the mistake.

  • Haig responded to the Bernal move, which meant he couldn’t respond to the Yates move right away, but the fact that his teammate Mader did shows great teamwork and coordination between the two riders.

Stage 21 Preview & Predictions:

Tomorrow’s final stage is no procession into Madrid, but a difficult 33-kilometer long time trial from Padrón to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

  • With a constant rolling course that has two categorized climbs, this will be a very difficult stage that could open up larger-than-expected gaps.

  • However, with such large time gaps between the top contenders, there won’t be much suspense for the fight for the overall win.

  • One thing to watch is Adam Yates versus Jack Haig for third place overall. Yates is the better time trialist and was flying in TTs earlier this season.

  • Prediction: Roglic blitzes the course to win the stage and seal his third consecutive Vuelta a Espana overall win. Yates puts in a great ride in the TT but Haig holds him off for third place.