The Time Trial is King: How Primoz Roglic Won the Vuelta a España
Roglic's dominant win at the 2021 Vuelta shows us the time trial is still king when it comes to winning grand tours
After having a few days to ponder Roglič’s third consecutive Vuelta a Espana overall victory, I wanted to go back through the defining stages to break down where exactly Roglic won the race. At first glance, Roglic just blew out the competition, but under a closer view, his win over Enric Mas and Jack Haig came over the course of a few defining moments. Hopefully, by highlighting these moments, they can act as a guide for readers as they attempt to discern which contenders can emerge as potential winners of future grand tours. And in a perfect world, they can even assist the teams of contenders on how and where time gaps are created and on the most optimal way to win a grand tour in the future.
To help us digest the end result at this Vuelta and attempt to understand what exactly happened, I’ve isolated every stage where the top three won/lost time relative to each other and how much time they won/lost.
Where the Top Three Won/Lost Time (w/Time Bonuses):
Stage 1 Time Trial
Stage 2 Sprint Stage
Stage 3 Uphill Finish
Stage 6 Uphill Finish
Stage 7 Summit Finish
Stage 9 High Mountain Summit Finish
Stage 11 Uphill Finish
Stage 17 High Mountain Summit Finish
Stage 18 High Mountain Summit Finish
Stage 20 Uphill Finish
Stage 21 Time Trial
Roglic vs Mas Course Type:
Time Trial (2): 2’22 Roglic
Summit Finishes (4): 1’42 Roglic
Time Bonuses (6): 32-seconds Roglic
Uphill Finishes (4): 6-seconds Roglic
Roglic vs Haig Course Type
Time Trial (2): 3’13 Roglic
Uphill Finishes (4): 2’14 Roglic
Summit Finishes (4): 49-seconds Roglic
Time Bonuses (6): 46-seconds Roglic
Sprint Stages (1): 38-seconds Roglic
If we take the total time taken over the number of stages that featured these types of stages, we can see the weighted importance of each stage type.
Roglic/Mas Time Difference per Stage Type:
Time Trials: 71-seconds
Summit Finishes: 25.5-seconds
Time Bonuses: 5.3-seconds
Uphill Finishes: .66-seconds
Time Trials Are King
Outside of Haig’s presence in the breakaway on stage 7 that got him back in overall contention after a poor opening week, this exercise clearly stresses the importance of time trials and time bonuses in modern grand tour racing. The Vuelta, due to its large amount of incredibly steep uphill and summit finishes, is perhaps the least time trial-friendly grand tour, but as the numbers above show us, they still provided Roglic with his greatest time yield per stage.
This is something to keep in mind when courses are unveiled and the talk of certain contenders being able to take minutes when they get to the high mountain stages. This ‘minutes’ myth has been surprisingly durable, despite years of evidence that simply isn’t that case in modern cycling.
One could push back on this logic by saying Roglic took 1’42 on Mas on the stage 17 mountain stage, but, if we look closer, Roglic actually rode the final climb at around the same pace as Mas, and built that gap up on the previous descent and flat valley before the climb. This is also in line with stage 20, where the massive gaps between Bernal and Lopez were created on a relatively mild, mid-stage climb, or the 2021 Tour de France, where Tadej Pogacar pulled out the majority of his non-time trial time gaps with an attack on the penultimate climb on a multiple mountain, non-summit finish stage 8. In modern cycling, the chaos and unpredictability of stages with either multiple high mountains or nearly endless mild hills are needed to create major gaps since the major contenders are simply too fit to put more than a few seconds into each other on single, final climbs.
These gap breakdowns are also something to keep in mind after short opening time trials (or the uphill finishes like we saw at this year’s Tour) when a contender has pulled out 20-40 seconds on the other contenders and the conventional wisdom is that this isn’t a big deal, because these gaps are tiny compared to what we will see created in the mountains. The overwhelming odds are that this won’t end up happening, and these time trial gaps will likely contribute to a major portion of the overall gap.
This should send a loud and clear message for any aspiring grand tour winners that their ability against the clocks needs to be, at the minimum, extremely adequate. In fact, this minimum requirement is so important that it has wiped large swaths of previous up-and-coming contenders like Miguel Angel Lopez, Nairo Quintana, and Mikel Landa completely off the GC map. Gone are the days of grand tours of just a few years ago, when riders with non-existent time trials could find themselves on the podium, or even potentially win the race. Looking at the 2015 Vuelta final podium of Fabio Aru, Joaquim Rodríguez and Rafał Majka feels as though we are looking at a result sheet from a bygone era.
The Race Was ‘Won’ in the Third Week
Week 1 (Stages 1-7) Time Difference:
Roglic took 25-seconds on Mas
Roglic took 57-seconds on Haig
Week 2 (Stage 8-14):
Roglic took 10-seconds on Mas
Roglic took 1’02 on Haig
Week 3 (Stage 15-21)
Roglic took 4’07 on Mas
Roglic took 5’41 on Haig
Enric Mas was riding the race of his life for the first two weeks of the Vuelta, losing only 35-seconds to Roglic over multiple summit finishes and an early time trial. Obviously, the Spaniard’s ability to match Roglic unraveled in the third week when he lost 2’51 on just the mountains of stage 17 and the time trial on stage 21.
Jumbo’s New Strategy
What is clear after this Vuelta is that Jumbo-Visma clearly tried a different strategy of pacing Roglic and backloading his race, and the early results would suggest this has worked incredibly well. Roglic seemed willing to give up chances to blitz the early uphill finishes to take stage wins and their ensuing time bonus seconds, and instead, sat back, let the race come to him, and hit his competition hard in the final week. But, a key point here is that while Roglic was ‘saving energy,’ he was still taking time on his opponents, ending the first week in the leader’s jersey. However, while he was taking time, he had eliminated the somewhat hubristic tendencies he and the team displayed early in past grand tours.
Another key difference from this Vuelta to past grand tours, particularly the 2020 Tour de France, was his Jumbo team’s willingness to let others take control of the race. At the 2020 Tour, the team’s distinctive yellow jerseys seemed to be on the front from stage 1, but at this Vuelta, they did everything they could to avoid wearing the race leader’s jersey, and even when they did, sat back and let other teams take up the pace on the front. This conservation of energy allowed them to come forward only when they absolutely needed to, which allowed them to keep a teammate, mainly Sepp Kuss, around Roglic at almost every key point of the race. It will be interesting to watch Jumbo in grand tours where Roglic is their leader to see if they continue this strategy or revert to their old habits when facing off against the formidable Tadej Pogacar.
Is Roglic The Best Current Grand Tour Racer?
This question is a bit absurd and ultimately, this is a somewhat unanswerable question. Over the offseason, I will be attempting to break down the climbing and time trial performances of each rider from their respective grand tour wins, but, of course, this still won’t give us a definitive answer.
But, as we wrap up the season's final grand tour and take stock of the results, an undeniable fact is that Roglič has now won three grand tours in the past three seasons, which is more than any other rider, including the only two other riders to win multiple grand tours over this time period, Tadej Pogacar and Egan Bernal.
While this Vuelta gave us evidence that Roglič is a step above Bernal, it seems like we walk away even more confused about the identity of the sport’s best grand tour racer. At times during this Vuelta, Roglic appeared unbeatable, which makes it even more painful than the battle we missed between the two Slovenian champions at the recent Tour. We should hopefully get a rematch of the 2020 Tour at next year’s race, but, you can’t take anything for granted in pro cycling since top riders in their prime rarely faceoff against one another at full health and under ideal circumstances.
BTP Fantasy League Results:
David Fullagar, the team principal of the dfp fantasy team, overcame being on the wrong side of a Lemond/Fignon-esque photo-finish at the Tour de France, to win the BTP Vuelta fantasy league over Jordan’s Where’s Wout squad. David win sees him claim the $50 cash prize due to his membership in the BTP premium members-only discord chat.