Vuelta Retrospective: Breaking down a grand tour that came down to sprint finishes

Looking back on where the Vuelta a Espana was won

With the 2020 Vuelta, and season, behind us, and so much seemingly happening so fast, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on how this Vuelta was won, and what it means for the future.

Primož Roglič recovered from his crushing Stage 20 loss at the Tour de France to win the overall 24-seconds in front of runnerup Richard Carapaz. The close win capped off the three consecutive Grand Tours with the gap between 1st and 2nd place under a minute. These ridiculously small margins mean that every decision made in these grand tours can be the difference between winning and losing.

The Vuelta was also unique in that it wasn’t a full 21 stages. It was shortened to 18 stages due to COVID complications canceling the first three stages that were scheduled in the Netherlands. I believe this shortening had an incredibly positive impact on the race. We parachuted into the GC race on the very first day of racing. And unlike the Tour de France, these weren’t difficult days on paper that results in shadow-boxing among the GC favorites. The winner of the first stage, Roglič, won the race overall, while second and third place, Carapaz and Dan Martin, would go on to finish the race in 2nd and 4th place overall.

On that opening stage, Roglič got a one-second gap on the field, plus a 10-second time bonus for winning the stage, and little did we know that these small gaps plus time bonuses would make up so much of the overall margin. If we look at the final GC, the 5-seconds Roglič pulled out on Carapaz ended up comprising 21% of the total winning margin.

Where the Race was Won

For only the second time in grand tour history, Roglič’s relentless pursuit of time bonuses contesting stages wins on Stages 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 13, 16 ended up being the deciding factor with the overall victory.

If we look at the final overall GC, it immediately becomes clear that Roglic racking up 48-seconds bonus seconds in sprint finishes throughout the race (riders get 10-seconds for winning a stage, 6-seconds for 2nd place, and 4-seconds for third), while Carapaz could only manage 16 and Carthy 10 gave him his winning margin.

But, of course, nothing happens in a vacuum and certainly, things would have played out differently without the existence of time bonuses. For example, Roglic would have been forced to attack further when he felt strong enough to drop the rest of the GC riders as he did on Stage 8.

Additionally, when Carapaz attacked in the final 3km of Stage 17, Roglic seemed to meter his effort knowing he had a 45-second cushion. This is evidenced by the fact that Carapaz pulled out around 27-seconds in the first kilometer of his attack, before ceding 8-seconds back to Roglic in the final kilometer. Carapaz’s attack looked impressive, but it was never going to net him the overall title. He attacked far too close to the finish and was clearly riding in an anaerobic zone (above his threshold), which meant his initial time gain rate wasn’t sustainable. To actually challenge for the overall win, he would have needed to attack further down on the climb, but perhaps he simply didn’t have the ability to hold a high enough threshold power for 20-30 minutes needed to put time into Roglic.

One note here is that while I said the final stage was silly and pointless, Carthy actually lost 28-seconds in the final few kilometers of that stage. Obviously, that didn’t affect his GC position, as he was close to two minutes ahead of Dan Maritn in 4th place. But this 28-second loss is larger than the gap between 1st and 2nd place and shows that they actually were calculating time gaps in that sprint finish, and a mistake by either Carapaz or Roglic could have decided the overall race. The slip-up is also another example of how EF mismanaged Carthy’s position all race. It cost them 53-seconds total (stages 10 & 18) in a race where 1st and 2nd were decided by 24-seconds. 

Final GC:
Roglic +0
Carapaz +24
Carthy +1’14
Martin +2’43
Mas +3’36

If we take the final GC results and filter out every time bonus awarded, it becomes clear that Carapaz literally raced the 18-stage course faster than Roglic. Carthy, without his 28-second loss on the final stage, paid the biggest price for these bonus seconds. Without that final stage slip up, he would have finished 57-seconds further behind Roglic than the time in which he actually rode the course.

Final GC Without Time Bonuses:
Carapaz +0
Roglic +8
Carthy +45

An interesting exercise to figure out where exactly this race was won is to start pulling certain components out of the overall standings. If we keep in the time bonuses and pulled out the time trials, we can see Carapaz would have, with Roglic in second and Carthy in third.

Final GC Without Time Trials:
Carapaz +0
Roglic +25
Carthy +1’15

If we keep in time bonuses and time trials and only count mountain stages, Carapaz wins with Carthy in second and Roglic in third.

Final GC Counting Only Mountain Stages:
Carapaz +0
Carthy +31
Roglic +1’01

This exercise makes it obvious that Roglic ceded time to Carapaz on every terrain except the time trial and was only able to pull ahead of him due to stage finish bonuses seconds. He won the Vuelta by contesting multiple sprint finishes and banking bonus seconds by finishing in the top three.

Decisive Moments: l'Angliru & The Time Trial

While Roglic gained time and ultimately built his lead via time bonuses on these stages, I actually believe he won the race on the steep slopes of the l'Angliru on Stage 12 after being dropped by Carapaz and Carthy, and in the final 9-kilometers of the Stage 13 time trial.

Roglic was dropped on l'Angliru with 2km remaining and for only the second time in the race, looked to be in serious trouble. His ability to recover, find a rhythm, and limit his losses were key to his overall race win. Also, the fact that his teammate Sepp Kuss remained to pace him instead of chasing a stage win likely saved him as much as half a minute. He would end up losing 26-seconds to the stage winner Carthy and 10-seconds to Carapaz, but this was the toughest climb in the race and if Carthy and Carapaz were going to win the overall, it had to happen here. While they looked great on the day and Carapaz walked away in the leader’s jersey, pulling out only 26 and 10-seconds wasn’t nearly enough and doomed them to lesser podium spots in Madrid.

After l'Angliru, the only stage of GC consequence remaining was the Stage 13 time trial and Stage 17 summit finish. The time trial obviously favored Roglic, and while his gains were somewhat limited in that 33.7km effort, the 25-seconds he put into Carthy and 49-seconds into Carapaz won him the race.

The key section of this time trial ended up being the final 9-kilometers, which included the absurdly steep 1.8km climb at an average of over 14%. Over this section, Roglic put 24-seconds into Carthy and 30-seconds into Carapaz, which ended up being more than his eventual winning margin.

Carapaz Pulls out Time on Formigal

Looking back through the race, the point where Carapaz put the most time into Roglic in a single stage was the summit finish at Formigal on Stage 6. Roglic struggled to get a rain jacket on in the cold, rainy weather, and in retrospect, this nearly cost him the race. He lost 43-seconds on Carapaz and 50-seconds on Carthy by the finish line and this wasn’t the first time this season where a botched attempt to put on a rain jacket had real consequences in a grand tour this season. While jacket-gate may have tilted the Giro race, it didn’t quite cost Roglic the overall title.

It is very interesting that Formigal, a relatively mild climb and placed in the first week, created the biggest gaps between overall contenders. One has to wonder if the original route finishing atop the much harder Col du Tourmalet was raced if Carapaz would have won the Vuelta. However, as we’ve seen on major setpiece climbs (see: l'Angliru), the bigger climbs seem to produce smaller time gaps than the “easier” climbs like Formigal.

Was Jumbo Right to Race Defensively?

Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma put together an amazing comeback to avenge their crushing loss at the Tour de France. This is a testament to their mental and physical strength. However, I wonder if some of their negative, defensive tendencies, which saw them not push for more time in the first 14 stages at the Tour nearly cost them the overall win at this Vuelta. Roglic was on fire in the first eight-days of this race. He didn’t finish outside the top two positions in the first three stages of the race and straight-up dropped every other rider in the race on the Stage 8 summit finish. During this impressive run, he potentially could have attacked slightly further down on each climb and pulled out 10-20 seconds per stage on his GC competition, which would have made his lead unassailable following the Stage 13 time trial.

While this criticism sounds right in theory, a variation of this critique has been endlessly levied at Roglic for the past 12-months. But if we look at his results over that time, he has finished in the top two positions in every grand tour he has entered and won two of those. So, it is entirely possible that Roglic’s defensive tactics aren’t as foolhardy as many in the media make them out to be. And if it wasn’t for a historic effort from Tadej Pogacar on Stage 20 of the Tour de France, Roglic would be the winner of the last three grand tours he entered and hands-down the best grand tour rider currently racing.

Where do Carapaz and Carthy Go From Here?

Carapaz emerged as a grand tour contender after winning the 2019 Giro d’Italia. He racked up massive time gaps in the mountains stages at that race due to Roglic and Nibali marking each other obsessively. This meant he was able to weather multiple incredibly poor time trial performances. After that race, I thought Carapaz would have a career pulling Ineos grand tour contenders up difficult climbs while moonlighting as a world-class stage hunter. I didn’t think his time trailing ability was at a high enough level to ever let him contend in an overall classification at a grand tour where he wasn’t spotted minutes by the competition in the hardest mountain stages.

This Vuelta performance clearly proved me wrong. Carapaz pulled out a very impressive time trial on Stage 13 that kept him in the overall hunt and signals that he does indeed have a future contending for grand tours for years to come. And remember, he was never even supposed to be at this race, he was training to defend his Giro d’Italia all summer before being thrown into the Tour de France at the last minute and I believe that if he went to the Giro as planned that he would have won his second consecutive title there.

The biggest hurdle Carapaz will face in his near future is simply getting leadership positions at grand tours on an incredibly stacked Ineos squad. One thing working for him is that while Ineos has a seemingly endless bench of B-class GC contenders, they don’t currently have an A-level rider who can consistently compete with and beat Pogacar and Roglic in a Tour de France with multiple time trials. In a massive turn of futures for the Ineos team, Carapaz could be their only grade-A grand tour contender in 2021.

While Carapaz dazzled and displayed a much higher ceiling than I originally thought, the biggest revelation of this race was Hugh Carthy. I always considered Carthy to be a luxury climbing domestique who was capable of a few top tens and stage wins from the breakaway on difficult mountain stages. He clearly disproved this notion by storming onto the podium at this Vuelta with both incredible climbing and time trial performances.

Having said that, I do believe that this will be as good as it gets for Carthy as he joins the ranks of riders like Ryder Hesjedal who lack the flat-stage pack skills to ever consistently compete for the GC in grand tours and hit their heads against proverbial brick wall after brick wall by starting grand tours with GC aspirations.

This Vuelta was tailored-made for Carthy (as well as Dan Martin, who had a career-best grand tour finish in 4th place). It lacked the long, first-week sprint stages that normally feature in a grand tour, had only one, relatively short time trial, and featured multiple steep mountaintop finishes that suited his relatively weak team and pure climbing ability. Remember, on two sprint stages (10&18) Carthy lost 53-seconds on Roglic simply due to poor positioning. Time losses on flat-stage can seriously add up and are lethal to a grand tour GC campaign. Carthy was extremely lucky that this Vuelta had its first three sprint stages cut out due to COVID and unfortunately, I don’t think he will get another shot like this again.

Despite lacking key Grand Tour skills, Carthy will get plenty of chances to lead his team at multiple grand tours next year. He has a contract with his EF team through 2021, and with Mike Woods heading to Israel StartUp Nation and Rigoberto Uran looking like he won’t return to EF next season, Carthy will be the sole GC rider for them.

Was the Vuelta a Good Race?

As I said above, this Vuelta was reduced to 18-stages from it’s usual 21 and eschewed the classic grand tour template. They essentially cut off the opening week and saw us jump directly into a GC battle from day one. They also stayed away from long transition stages with soft, pointless breakaways. The ensuing result was extremely exciting racing and the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment. Even the time trial, a stage type that can be incredibly boring, featured a steep final pitch that complicated pacing and equipment choices, and as we discovered above, played a large part in deciding the overall winner.

Another major positive I took from the race was its modified spot on the schedule. I found the beautiful fall scenery and the mild to cold weather to suit the racing much better than the usual infernal Spanish August weather. I would love to see an entire schedule overall using lessons we learned from the COVID compressed 2020 season and would love if the Vuelta was moved back around 4-6 weeks.

A few negatives I noticed at the race was a lack of true high mountain stages, as COVID kept the peloton from crossing the French border in the Pyrenees, and a slight fizzle in action with the final week parcours. Following the Stage 13 TT, there was only a single mountain stage (17) on tap, and it lacked multiple high mountain passes on which a stronger rider could drive a large wedge of time between them and the other contenders.

However, this wasn’t all negative. As we saw at the Giro, a heavy final week produced a dull stalemate in the first two weeks. In comparison, this Vuelta wasn’t burdened by a looming brutal final week and the opening week sparkled because of it. It seemed that by pushing tradition aside, the Vuelta organizers produced a grand tour style that could begin to serve as a template going forward.

I already said this in the subscribers-only newsletter on Sunday, but Roglic’s 2020 season will forever be defined by losing the Tour de France in dramatic fashion on Stage 20, but if we look closer, he was the best rider of the season and this will most likely be the best season of his career. Roglic started his season with a win on June 21st and ended it on November 8th with a win. This is incredibly impressive, especially if we recall the “but he’s peaked too early!” takes back in July. He also scored 12 wins and achieved an incredible feat of two Grand Tour podiums plus a Monument win (Liege). Even with these highly impressive results, the thing I was most impressed with was that he didn’t simply bow out after his crushing defeat at the Tour and kept coming back and delivering an absurdly consistent run of victories.

Things to Watch in the 2021 Offseason

Just because pro racing is taking some downtime before the spring European races begin in February, it doesn’t mean things won’t be happening in the next few months. There are still 125 currently WorldTour riders without contracts for 2021, including big names like Filippo Ganna, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Michał Kwiatkowski and teams like EF that have a lot of space to fill on their rosters before January. I will be keeping a close eye on the transfer market in the next few weeks and keeping premium subscribers updated, as well as releasing detailed team rosters and rankings as soon as the full rosters are finalized.

I will also be sending out an analysis of the recently-released 2021 Tour de France route to premium subscribers later this week.