La Vuelta Stage 6: Every Second Counts

The Vuelta's GC battle springs back to life & one trident surges while another crumbles into a chopstick

After a few days in the doldrums, the Vuelta a Espana sprung to life with Magnus Cort, who had spent nearly the entire day out front in the breakaway, holding off a surging Primoz Roglic on the short, steep final climb by less than a second above the Mediterranean hamlet of Cullera. Despite not being able to reel in Cort for the stage win, Roglic collected valuable time bonuses while also putting time between himself and his GC rivals on the short climb to extend the seemingly ever-growing gap.

Roglic re-took the overall lead after former leader Kenny Elissonde lost contact with the lead group after Movistar took advantage of a crosswind section heading into the final climb. The surge also caught out Hugh Carthy, who lost nearly three minutes on the final pitch to the finish after being roughed up by Movistar’s crosswinds gambit in the kilometer prior.

Stage 6 Notebook:

158-86km: The stage starts incredibly fast and the battle for the breakaway is fierce, and at some point, a crash took down a large portion of the peloton.

85km: The breakaway has a 7-minute gap on the peloton and it looks like there is a real chance the win will be contested between them. The favorite from this group is Magnus Cort of EF. Joan Bou from the Basque Euskaltel - Euskadi team is up here again after being in the break for what seems like every day at this race.

70km: BikeExchange has come to the front of the peloton for Michael Matthews and has pegged the gap back to 5’01. It certainly won’t be an easy win for the breakaway with the gap coming down this fast.

50.5km: The gap drops down to just 3’00, but Matthews crashes after bumping an Alpecin rider. This will really complicate things for the peloton and possibly swing the favor back to the breakaway. Notice that once again this crash occurred just as the pace slowed.

33km: The peloton hits a crosswind section and Movistar gets to the front and forms an echelon to split the bunch. Their gambit works and the peloton is spread out all over the road. Jumbo has done a good job to stay up here with Roglic, while the Ineos riders appear to be somewhat fending for themselves. We can see the groups spread out all over behind them and it will be hard for anyone to catch back on, and even if they can, they will likely then be too cooked to hang on the climb.

29.2km: Race leader Kenny Elissonde, the lightest rider in the race, is suffering in the crosswinds, which favor bigger riders, and is being spat out of the back of a chase group. His reign in the race lead is clearly over at this point and this shows just how important it is to stay well-positioned in crosswinds and how brutal it is to attempt to chase back on, even if the gaps are relatively small.

16.1km: Movistar is still massed on the front of the peloton and really senses the chance to put rival contenders under pressure on this flat run-in before the climb. This is a great strategy and use of team resources.

16km: Hugh Carthy, EF’s leader, is oddly sitting at the back of the peloton, which means it is only a matter of time before he is dropped.

15.3km: And sure enough, shortly afterward, Carthy is popped off the back of the group.

8.2km: Carthy’s team has dropped back to pace him, and are almost literally sprinting to get back onto the peloton. While they will be successful in riding the gap, he still has to make it up the climb and this effort will be a massive disadvantage. I’m still somewhat baffled how this positioning mistake could have happened since everyone knew this was coming.

1.8km: Ineos’ Jhonatan Narváez leads the peloton, at an extremely high pace, into the final climb. But, he is going so fast that he almost immediately drops his teammate Adam Yates, and actually starts to ride away from his teammates Richard Carapaz and Egan Bernal. This means the effort is doing more harm than good to his own team, and really just helping Roglic, who has no teammates left but now just has to sit on Bernal’s wheel knowing the pace is too high for anyone to attack.

1.4km: Magnus Cort and Bert Jan Lindeman, the only survivors from the breakaway, are dangling just in front of the peloton, which is oddly still being led by a solo Narváez while his teammates struggle to hold his wheel behind.

818m: Narváez eventually runs out of gas and there is a slowing in the peloton. Movistar has massive numbers, but can’t quite decide if they want to play it aggressively by having one of their riders attack, or sit and wait for Roglic to make a move.

557m: The hesitation and slowing allow Cort, who has dropped Lindeman like a stone, to actually start increasing his gap to the chasing peloton and give himself a real shot at an amazing victory. He is turning over a big gear, which makes him look like he is going slower than the chasers, but in reality, he is putting out massive power here and is absolutely flying.

300m: Instead of a Movistar rider making a move, Michael Matthews, the sprinter, sets off in pursuit of Cort and the stage win. This is incredibly impressive, but unfortunately, he has Roglic sitting behind him ready to pounce, so even if he pulls Cort back, Roglic will steal the win.

Finish: Roglic eventually takes flight in an attempt to roglify Cort, but he goes slightly too late, and the chicanes in the final 50 meters allow Cort to hold him off. We can also see Cort take a look back and almost appear to have a slight moment of panic when he sees Roglic in pursuit, but this panic allows him to summon a bit of extra strength that gets him over the line in first.

Stage Top Five:
Magnus Cort +0
Primoz Roglic +0
Andrea Bagioli +2
Aleksandr Vlasov +4
Enric Mas +4

Filtered Stage GC Results (including time bonuses):
Roglic +0
Mas +10
Vlasov +10
Bernal +14
Valverde +14
Lopez +15
Yates +31
Landa +33
Carapaz +33
Carthy +2’56

Current GC Top 22:

Ten Takeaways:

1) Magnus Cort gets an incredible and somewhat improbable stage win. Making the break was incredibly difficult, and after that feat, he was taking double turns up front all day to make it stick. Still, all seemed to be lost when they hit the final climb with only a 25-second gap on the chasing peloton, but he didn’t give up and kept his pace steady while pushing massive watts all the way to the line.

  • It is almost hard to comprehend that he stayed away for the win after his gap of nearly eight minutes was dissolved into less than a second by the finish line.

  • He doesn’t win many races, but when he does, they are an extremely high quality. He now has four Vuelta stage wins in addition to a Tour de France stage win.

  • Cort smartly knew he just had to get to the final 50-meters ahead of Roglic, since the series of turns provided much-needed cover from the fresher rider. These turns were so technical that we could see Cort freewheeling through one of the turns.

  • Oddly, when Cort won stage 16 in last year’s Vuelta, Roglic took second place to him that day as well.

  • One could argue that perhaps if Cort would have not gone in the break and stayed with Hugh Carthy, he wouldn’t have missed out in the crosswinds, but, in my opinion, Carthy was never going to win the overall anyway and EF has make GC sacrifices and take stage wins whenever they can get them.

2) Michael Matthews had an incredible ride on the final climb, especially considering he crashed mid-stage. But once again, he was stuck in the middle between not fast enough for pure sprints while being a good climber but not quite good enough to hold off Roglic.

3) The time gaps between the GC contenders were absolutely massive considering this was essentially a sprint stage. They are likely bigger than what we will see on the highest summit finishes.

  • Adam Yates and Mikel Landa lost 30 seconds to him today while Hugh Carthy bled nearly 3 minutes, he's likely out of the GC battle.

  • Even Mas, who has done a great job of limiting ‘time leak’ to Roglic so far, lost 10-seconds, mostly due to the time bonuses for the top three on the stage.

  • This is due to the extreme explosiveness of the efforts. It is a bit counterintuitive, but the shorter the climb, the more anaerobic the effort, which can open up larger gaps than long climbs, which have to be climbed aerobically.

4) And when we look at the GC standings, the time gaps between Roglic and the best of the rest are surprisingly large, while the gaps between them and the field are still quite close.

  • The ‘time leak’ from contenders like Mas, Landa and Bernal to Roglic is surprising. For example, Landa is already over a minute down on Roglic despite the fact that we still haven’t had any major extended setpieces.

  • The fact that places 6-30 are so close means there are loads of riders, like Mikel Landa and Mark Padun, with little-to-lose, but still within reach of the podium who will be looking for chances for long-range attacks to make up this time.

5) This stage worked out perfectly for Roglic. His Jumbo team wasn’t able to pace into, or on the climb, but Ineos bailed him out with their ill-considered plan to head into the climb at full-speed. All he had to do was sit on Bernal’s wheel while Ineos kept the pace so high that nobody could attack him while burning off contenders like Yates (who is on Ineos).

  • Roglic won’t like it, but he is back in the red leader’s jersey. He collects his 28th GC leader's jersey at Vuelta a España and passes Valverde and Froome on the all-time list. Alex Zülle has the most all-time with 48.

  • He is already leading Bernal by 41-seconds after only six stages.

  • If his Jumbo-Visma team would have paced on the flat before the climb, he would have won the stage and gotten four additional time bonus seconds. This likely won’t matter, but it is curious they almost willingly gave up this time.

6) Ineos shows once again that they simply don’t know how to race against a stronger rider.

  • Their leadout tactic going into the final climb was incredibly hubristic and served up Roglic’s time gain on a platter. He was without any teammates, but instead of attacking him and forcing him to close gaps, which they then could have attacked off of, they set an incredibly high and steady pace that helped him and hurt their own rider.

  • The Tom Pidcock selection is seemingly somewhat misguided. Despite the stage suiting him perfectly, he finishes over six minutes off the back. If they came here to seriously contest the win, picking a rider who quite literally hadn’t prepared for this race, instead of one of their almost endless world-class domestiques, is extremely odd.

7) It is now clear that it is time for Ineos to consolidate behind Bernal. He is clearly their best GC rider, especially now that we can see Carapaz is somewhat cooked after the Tour.

  • It is shocking we’ve ended up here after they came into the race with what was seemingly an embarrassment of riches.

  • However, it is concerning he finished eight seconds behind Roglic. If he is fully fit, and at a level where he could compete with Roglic on harder climbs, he wouldn’t be losing time to Roglic on summit finishes.

  • Unfortunately for Ineos, I think that even though Bernal is their best rider at the moment, the trend of him losing small bits of time to Roglic on summit finishes will continue throughout the race.

8) In stark contrast, Movistar had a highly coherent strategy for the day that has placed their trident in spots 2-4 in the general classification.

  • Instead of leading out the bottom of the climb, which just helped Roglic, they put their rivals under pressure on the flat, windy run-in, which put many GC riders under pressure and allowed them to pry open a gap once on the climb.

  • But, I still can’t shake the feeling this trident strategy, like it almost always does, will leave the team less than the sum of its parts.

  • For example, with 800m to go on the final climb, it would have made sense for one of their leaders to attack and force Roglic to chase, but not wanting to risk losing time, they all sat in and let him off the hook.

9) What happened with Hugh Carthy? It isn’t clear to me if he physically cracked on the mostly flat day, or his struggles were merely positioning-based.

  • The fact that he could make it back before the climb after being dropped in the crosswinds makes me wonder if he was simply in poor position when he was dropped instead of having a bad day physically, and that his time losses on the climb were due to his physical overextension to catch back on.

  • His time losses today, along with on stage 2, support my pre-race theory that the abridged Vuelta in 2020 helped him since it skipped the flat stages like today. So far, he has lost x seconds on flat stages alone.

10) Under-the-radar winners today were Vlasov, who finished with Mas only 4-seconds behind Roglic and shows he is fit and ready to fight for an overall podium spot by limited his losses when the terrain suits Roglic, and Andrea Bagioli, who gets a fantastic third-place on the stage.

  • Bagioli, at only 22-years-old, gets his second stage podium at the Vuelta, after his third place on stage 10 of last year’s edition.

  • He is emerging as a rider to watch on stages that are too hard for sprinters but too explosive for pure climbers.

Stage 7 Preview & Predictions

Tomorrow’s stage sees the peloton head inland from the Mediterranean coast and hit successive climbs that dot the picturesque coastline. While none of the climbs are hard enough in isolation to break the field, the fact that they mark nearly the entire 152km course means this is ripe terrain for a long-range raid.

  • This is similar to stages we might see at the Tour of the Basque Country, where multiple climbs strip riders from their teams and sow GC chaos.

  • While it is fun to imagine Bahrain turning the tables on the field by sending Landa and Padun into the early breakaway, we are still very early in this Vuelta, and riders/teams will want to conserve as much energy as possible, which could result in slightly disappointing racing.

  • Also, while Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma team isn’t strong enough to control the day, Movistar, who as I pointed out above, is somewhat hamstrung by their multiple leaders, will likely have to default to controlling the pace to defend their GC positions, which could keep any serious GC contenders from getting clear.

  • Prediction: Movistar, unwilling to sacrifice one of their leaders this early, controls the stage after a few outside contenders try to shake things up. Primoz Roglic wins atop the final 8km-long climb to extend his lead while the Movistar trident further distances the Ineos trio of Bernal, Yates, and Carapaz.