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Could the Vuelta a España still unravel for Remco Evenepoel?

Belgian Remco Evenepoel of QuickStep Alpha Vinyl crosses the finish line of stage 15 of the 2022 edition of the Vuelta a Espana Tour of Spain cycling race from Martos to Sierra Nevada 153 km Spain Sunday 04 September 2022 BELGA PHOTO DAVID PINTENS Photo by DAVID PINTENS BELGA MAG Belga via AFP Photo by DAVID PINTENSBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images
Evenepoel is shedding time in the mountains but his red jersey rivals are running out of stages to close the gap (Image credit: DAVID PINTENSBELGA MAGAFP via Getty Images)

Minutes after he had reached the summit finish of Sierra Nevada, Remco Evenepoel stated in no uncertain terms that he could only be satisfied with the current state of the standings at the Vuelta a España. It was hard to disagree.

Yet while Evenepoel's road to landing Belgium's first Grand Tour victory since Johan De Muynck won the 1978 Giro seems increasingly smooth, multiple potential obstacles remain, and the Vuelta's long history of last-minute debacles for seemingly strong GC leaders is only one of them.

On the considerable plus side for Evenepoel, he heads towards western Andalucía and the start of the third week in the coastal town of Sanlucar de Barrameda with a 1:34 lead on his closest rival, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), and 2:01 on the rider running third, Enric Mas (Movistar).

His overall advantage of nearly five minutes on Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) in fourth place means that only Roglič and Mas have any realistic chance of turning the tables in the final six stages of the battle for outright victory. In a Grand Tour often decided by seconds, not minutes, Evenepoel's advantage over the two riders closest to him may not be huge, but it is still considerable.

There are other factors in his favour, starting with the route. The toughest stages of the Vuelta are behind Evenepoel, and the big incognito of how he might respond to racing at altitude was resolved in his favour at Sierra Nevada. And it will, in any case, not be an issue again in the three remaining summit finishes.

None of those finales – at Monasterio de Tentudia on Wednesday, Alto del Piornal on Thursday, and Navacerrada on Saturday – are in any way as steep as the slopes of La Pandera, where Evenepoel suffered his one clear off day in the Vuelta to date on stage 14. This should be yet another boost to Evenepoel's motivation.

Last but by no means least is his current form and ability to stay cool under fire. Even if he could not respond to Roglič's lurching acceleration on La Pandera and his probing attack at Sierra Nevada, Evenepoel did not panic on either day, but found his own pace and stuck to it. Winning Grand Tours is as much about handling bad days as making the most of good ones. Dealing with those potential crisis moments without losing the plot speaks volumes about how quickly and effectively Evenepoel is learning to be an overall contender in this year's Vuelta.

When it comes to the climbs, if there are few questions about Evenepoel's form despite his slight loss of momentum over the weekend, his team is more of an incognito. Of his three main mountain domestiques, Louis Vervaeke's assistance towards the summit of Sierra Nevada looked more like nominal pacesetting than keeping Mas on a tight leash, Ilan Van Wilder showed signs of fatigue, and Fausto Masnada was unlucky enough to crash at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

Evenepoel's rivals might look to challenge him via an ambush on a flat stage, such as the one that had former winner Roglič against the ropes in the 2019 Vuelta on the road to Guadalajara, but on current evidence, isolating him on Saturday's final crunch mountain stage is not going to be impossible.

In fact, the team is perhaps Evenepoel's biggest potential chink in his armour. Shipping time on two consecutive summit finishes to both his main rivals was, as he pointed out, time he could easily afford to lose. But Saturday's stage through the sierras of Madrid in particular has a long history of poleaxing Vuelta GC leaders with uneven levels of climbing support from their teammates or flagging mountain form.

SIERRA NEVADAGRANADA SPAIN SEPTEMBER 04 LR Ben Alexander Oconnor of Australia and AG2R Citren Team and Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team QuickStep Alpha Vinyl Red Leader Jersey compete in the chase group during the 77th Tour of Spain 2022 Stage 15 a 1526km stage from Martos to Sierra Nevada Granada 2507m LaVuelta22 WorldTour on September 04 2022 in Sierra Nevada Spain Photo by Justin SetterfieldGetty Images

Evenepoel conceded time, but kept his lead on stage 15 on Sunday (Image credit: Getty Images)

Philippa York's loss of the 1985 Vuelta to Pedro Delgado and Tom Dumoulin's defeat 30 years later by Fabio Aru are the best-known cases. But when Isidro Nozal came equally unstuck on the closing weekend of the Vuelta in Navacerrada in 2003, he had, like Evenepoel, dominated the Vuelta up until the end of the second week, despite (curiously enough) also losing time to his nemesis Roberto Heras on La Pandera.

And like Evenepoel, that was Nozal's first Grand Tour lead as well. At the moment for the Belgian, for all his assured displays up to now in such unfamiliar circumstances, the third week of his Vuelta remains a voyage into the unknown.

It's also worth remembering that when the Vuelta reaches stage 18 next Thursday, Evenepoel will be heading into uncharted territory physically, given he was a DNS on the equivalent stage in the 2021 Giro d'Italia, his only previous Grand Tour. On current evidence, it looks like he will hold up fine. But as yet, there is no precedent to be more certain.

Of those willing to test the Belgian the most keenly, Mas and Roglič are the only two in a position to seize the red jersey. Of the two, Mas' promises of an 'all-or-nothing' attitude to the Vuelta GC earlier on may be tempered by his Movistar squad's need to reel in a haul of UCI points to save their WorldTour status. Roglič, on the other hand, has next to nothing to lose after his three Vuelta victories. And he's 30 seconds closer to Evenepoel on GC, too.

Whether Jumbo-Visma are currently dusting down plans to repeat the offensive strategy that toppled Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the Tour de France remains to be seen. But their squad looked to be the strongest on the toughest climbs in the sierras of Andalucía this weekend, despite the loss of Sepp Kuss, a key factor Roglič's three Vuelta wins.

And, with the Tour de France already won this summer, Jumbo-Visma may well be thinking they can afford to roll the GC dice more than once in the final week here. Watch this space.

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Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.