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La Vuelta Stage 9: The True Contenders Start to Emerge
The hardest stage so far in the Vuelta separates the true contenders from the pretenders
The ninth stage of La Vuelta España served up the first real mountain stage of the race, and the sunbleached landscape of Southern Spain did its best to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Damiano Caruso won the stage atop the brutal Alto de Velefique climb with an absurd long-range attack, while Primoz Roglic, who was closing in extremely fast behind, took second place on the stage to extend his overall lead, with Enric Mas coming over the line just a single second behind in third place to cement himself as the most viable contender to disrupt Roglic’s title defense.
Despite their Ineos team taking control of the stage early on, Egan Bernal and Adam Yates couldn’t match the pace of Mas and Roglic on the final climb and slipped further afield of the race lead. As the race heads into its first rest day, it is clear that Movistar, not Ineos, will be the dominant GC team of the race, but only time will tell if their numbers at the top of the GC leaderboard can truly trouble Roglic, who has failed to put a foot wrong so far and even appears to be practicing more restraint than in years past, likely in an effort to avoid the third-week troubles that have plagued him at times.
Stage Top Five:
Damiano Caruso +0
Primoz Roglic +1'05
Enric Mas +1’06
Jack Haig +1’44
Miguel Angel Lopez +1’44
Select GC Stage Results w/Time Bonuses:
GC Top Ten After Stage 9:
Stage 9 Race Notes:
69.3km: On a massive mid-stage climb, Ineos comes to the front, presumably to set up a long-range attack, while Damiano Caruso, who attacked the breakaway two kilometers prior, holds a thin 1’30 lead.
57.2km: Caruso summits the climb with a 2’00 lead, which tells us that either his climbing pace was incredibly fast, or, more likely, Ineos’ pace wasn’t quite as strong as in years past. Oddly, Ineos’ pace-setting didn’t produce a long-range Carapaz attack and they simply ride steady over the top of the climb with Roglic in tow.
32.7km: Ineos restrains themselves from taking the front on the next climb, but Jumbo, who doesn’t have any desire to pull back the breakaway, rides at a relatively easy pace on the front of the group which allows Caruso’s gap to balloon out of 3’49.
13.6km: At the base on the final climb, Caruso has built his gap up to an impressive 5’02. This shows just how easy Jumbo has been riding and with Caruso only six minutes off the lead, how much they are willing to play chicken with the other teams.
9.9km: Ineos blinks first in this game of chicken and hits the front to set pace, which oddly, helps Roglic pull back Caruso and keeps the pace high enough to deter attacks from other GC contenders.
8.7km: We see a few moments later that they were at the front to set up an attack from Adam Yates, who clearly feels confident in his legs to risk a move from this far out. If he succeeds, he could ride into the race lead, but if he fails, he could be dropped a long way from the finish line. Lopez, only 36-seconds off the race lead, goes with him, and Sepp Kuss from Jumbo struggles to bridge up to them.
8.1km: Kuss’ decision to go with them makes little sense since Jumbo is pacing to pull the trio back. If they aren’t going to roll the dice and let Kuss ride up the road and potentially into the race lead, they would be better off with him on the front of this group.
8km: Despite everything going somewhat smoothly, Roglic throws down a searing attack, with Mas the only rider able to stay remotely close to him.
7.9km: He bridges a 15-second gap to the Yates group in 10-seconds, but once he catches them, he simply sits up, which makes this a fairly pointless attack. To me, this felt like a “don’t mess with him” attack.
5km: Adam Yates attacks again. Sepp Kuss attempts to follow, but goes over his limit and slightly implodes. This shows that he likely should have just stayed with Roglic instead of attempting to follow Yates.
4km: Yates stays clear for a moment, but Mas and Roglic soon bridge up to him, and then proceed to drop him.
3.3km: Mas is pulling with Roglic on his wheel, which he is willing to do to distance his podium rivals behind. This is truly the worst-case scenario for Ineos, who has not been able to get a single rider in this lead group.
2.7km: Yates is leading the chase 15-seconds behind Mas/Roglic, but Bernal, his teammate, really appears to be struggling at the back of the group.
1.1km: Things go from bad to worse when Bernal is dropped from the chase group, even as the gap to Mas/Roglic has grown. This is a great example of how the multi-leader “let the road decide” strategy can go sideways. Yates has put Bernal into trouble and now won’t sit up to pace him in and help him limit his losses, even though Bernal still possesses the best prospect for Ineos’ overall success at this race.
Finish: Caruso is rocking and rolling on the bike inside the final kilometer, but is able to hold on to win despite his rapidly falling gap. Mas pulls Roglic all the way to the line, only for Roglic to jump him, pull out a second gap, and the six-second time bonus for second place. Mas gets a 4-second time bonus in 3rd place, while Jack Haig leads Lopez and Yates over the line 39-seconds back, with Bernal limping over the line a further 26-seconds later.
1) Damiano Caruso gets a truly amazing stage win after riding solo over the final 70-kilometers. This is similar to stage 20 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia when he attacked a long way from the finish to clinch a stage win and second place overall.
What is most impressive about this win is that he only had a 1’20 gap on the peloton when he went solo with 71km-to-go, but was able to build his lead up to over five minutes by the base of the final 13km-long climb.
And he needed nearly every bit of that buffer since the GC attacks caused the gap to melt down inside the final few kilometers.
I doubt he will care, but he is now 15th in the GC and technically ahead of his team’s pre-race GC leader, Mikel Landa, by six seconds.
2) Heading into the first rest day, Ineos is sitting 5th (Bernal), 6th (Yates), and 21st (Carapaz) in the GC. This certainly isn’t what they had in mind when they came into this race with what they thought were three legitimate GC contenders.
Despite this relatively weak GC position compared to teams like Jumbo and Movistar, they rode today, just like at the Tour de France, as though they were defending the lead, and oddly, acted as the defacto race leaders, which gave Jumbo-Visma, who was struggling today, the day off on a stage where they should have been tested.
Also, while Adam Yates’ attacks looked impressive, they accomplished nothing other than putting his teammate Egan Bernal under pressure.
While Yates might look like the team’s best option at the moment, even after today’s gains, he is trailing Bernal due to the time he lost on stage 2.
Also, he has collapsed in the third week of every grand tour he has raced since getting 4th at the 2016 Tour de France.
This means the team simply can’t afford to have Yates racing for himself at the expense of Bernal with nearly two full weeks left to race.
3) Richard Carapaz was supposed to be Ineos’ secret weapon, but so far, he has been dropped on every uphill finish and doesn’t serve as a legitimate threat for a long-range attack, mainly because those behind won’t have confidence in his ability to stay clear on a summit finish.
Even worse is that while his GC hopes have faded, he hasn’t stepped up to help his teammates set pace early on climbs.
He is riding incredibly selflessly, but if we look back at his career, he has never been a rider who works for others. He views himself as a leader, and as Olympic champion, this isn’t unfounded, but right now, this attitude is hurting the team and they need to change this approach ASAP.
4) All of this speaks to a lack of flexibility and an inability to alter battle plans. This has plagued legacy world military powers, like the US, in foreign conflicts, and we are seeing the exact same issue here.
They have raced in exactly the same fashion at every race so far this season. And it has worked every time they haven’t had to race against one of the two Slovenian superstars, but when facing off against Roglic and/or Pogacar, they simply cannot adjust their strategy, and since they don’t have a single rider on their team as strong as either Slovenian, their pre-set strategy implodes.
And if they want to back Adam Yates, they shouldn’t have paced when he was off the back on stage 2, which cost him around 30-seconds.
5) It ended up not mattering, but Jumbo-Visma did not look infallible today, and looked vulnerable at times.
We will never know since Ineos bailed them out, but it could have been difficult for them to control the race from 70km out after Caruso, an outside GC threat, attacked.
6) Speaking of which, I was slightly confused by Sepp Kuss’ tactics when Adam Yates attacked. Instead of staying with Roglic and setting a steady, but high, pace on the front to slowly reel him back, he joined Yates’ attack, which eventually put him over the limit, while his own teammates, Roglic and Kruijswijk, were setting pace behind.
And if that group goes out to three minutes, it isn’t exactly great for Jumbo, since Lopez would still be ahead of him and Yates is a much better time trialist.
In summation, Jumbo would have been much better off with him pacing behind.
7) But, a hugely important point is that none of this might not matter, since Roglic looked so freakishly strong when jumped across the gap to Yates that it is hard to imagine anyone truly testing him in the mountains.
He looked like he was riding twice the speed of the Yates group as he bridged the gap in the saddle while they struggled out of the saddle.
But as I said in the race notes, while impressive, I’m not actually sure this was a great move, since, at 8km from the finish, it was likely too far to actually counter-attack and solo to the finish line.
It is worth pointing out that when Mas attacked with 4km-to-go, he did look slightly more labored.
However, while I’ve heard some criticism of Roglic for not attacking Mas and trying to put more time into him, this might not have actually made much sense. By sitting on Mas, he was playing it much more conservatively and saving more energy than he has early on in past grand tours, which could, in theory, help him in the third week, where he has historically struggled.
And while saving energy, he was putting time into critical rivals like Yates, Lopez, and Bernal.
At the end of the day, he put close to a minute into Yates, over a minute into Bernal, and continued to slowly chip time away from Mas, all while taking it somewhat easy.
This is significant since even when he has struggled in the past at the Vuelta, he has limited his losses to around 30-seconds. So, today could have essentially nullified any time gains riders like Lopez, Bernal, and/or Yates might take later in the race.
It is hard to frame this as anything but a positive as he heads into the first rest day.
8) While Roglic was the GC winner of the day, Movistar moved back into 2nd and 3rd overall, rode in near-perfect synchrony all day, all while Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez displayed the best form I’ve ever seen from them.
I was shocked to see Mas going pedal stroke for pedal stroke with Roglic. He has tended to fade later in grand tours throughout his career, but at 26-years-old, he has appeared to have taken a massive step forward.
In season 2 of the Movistar documentary on Netflix, in-house coaching guru Patxi Vila tells Mas that he simply doesn’t have the watts per kilos to hang with the best when things get serious on the climbs but flash forward a year, and he has been able to match Roglic nearly every time the race has gone uphill.
Heading into the first rest day only 28-seconds behind Roglic is a massive victory for him, and at this point, Roglic and Jumbo have to view him as their biggest rival at this race.
9) Mikel Landa was dropped quite early on the final climb and almost certainly fell out of podium contention.
We saw cracks in his form leading into this race, and today it was clear that he simply isn’t fully recovered from his crash at the Giro d’Italia.
His Bahrain team’s public stance has been that they are here for Landa’s GC campaign, but internally, this simply cannot be true. Jack Haig and Damiano Caruso are both currently higher in the GC than Landa and as Caruso showed today, they have a team full of world-class stage hunters.
10) Astana’s Aleksandr Vlasov was also dropped, lost close to three minutes to Roglic, and fell out of the top ten overall.
He is almost a mirage of a rider since at times he appears to be one of the sport’s next great stars, but if we look closer, he has been dropped on every mountain summit finish so far this season.
I will be sending out a BTP Fantasy League update (spoiler alert: my picks have been terrible) and Stage 10 preview during tomorrow’s rest day…