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GC analysis: Roglic remains reference point despite losing Vuelta a España lead

Vuelta Espana 2021 - 76th Edition - 3rd stage Santo Domingo de Silos - Picon Blanco 202,8 km - 16/08/2021 - Primoz Roglic (SLO - Jumbo - Visma) - photo Luis Angel Gomez/BettiniPhoto©2021
Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma rode stage 3 in the red leader's jersey (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

After the first summit finish of the 2021 Vuelta a España, double-defending champion and top favourite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) may no longer be in the lead, but this is no defeat. Far from it.

As the Slovenian himself re-confirmed at the summit of Picón Blanco, his ideal result from the Vuelta a España is if he is in the red leader’s jersey after the final stage in Santiago de Compostela in three weeks time. 

In the meantime, and provided none of his GC rivals gain significant time, Roglič will be satisfied with ‘lending’ la roja to any rider who does not constitute a long-term threat. Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) constitutes the perfect candidate. 

The Estonian’s team is more than strong enough to control the race at least until Thursday’s short, punchy summit finish in Cullera, and Taaramäe himself has good enough climbing credentials to perhaps keep it until Sunday’s fearfully-tough stage through the sierras of Andalucia. For the Belgian squad, given their number one objective of a stage win has already been achieved and overall victory is almost certainly out of reach, defending Taaramäe’s Vuelta lead for as long as possible will be their main target for the next few days at least. Come what may, their Vuelta is already a success.

Meanwhile Roglič, third overall at 30 seconds, remains perfectly poised to strike and the added stress and post-stage obligations of leading the race have now evaporated. Although it has to be remembered that they were working hard all day on a very long stage with virtually no assistance, his Jumbo-Visma teammate, notably Sepp Kuss, did not appear to be on top form on the final climb. 

We probably won’t find out whether or not the Dutch squad are really in poor collective shape unless, or perhaps when, Roglič regains red. But for Jumbo-Visma, a break from controlling the race, no matter how short, will be equally welcome either way.

It was notable Roglič’s tactical retreat from la roja and deliberately muted performance on the climb did not bring any kind of major onslaught from his rivals. Rather than force the Jumbo-Visma leader’s hand, for all Bahrain Victorious tried to heighten the pace mid-climb, the much-awaited attack from Mikel Landa never came. Instead, almost any differences between the favourites were more due to a war of attrition at the back of the peloton than searing attacks off the front.

A last kilometre dig by Enric Mas (Movistar) as well as some notable support from Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) meant Mas was the only favourite who gained time on Roglič, albeit just three seconds. Although it was puzzling to see López lead the charge behind Mas, either way their two-pronged GC assault remains more than intact. 

However, Hugh Carthy’s struggling at the summit and Richard Carapaz’ time loss mean two of the three 2020 podium finishers are currently most at risk of being dislodged from the 2021 GC battle. Carapaz’s below-expectations performance also provides some additional clarity to the Ineos Grenadiers GC hierarchy. As Carapaz falls back, so Bernal, who has gained the lead of the Best Young Rider’s jersey and Adam Yates, one of the strongest riders on the climb, move correspondingly closer to the centre of the British team’s GC aspirations.

The Vuelta’s first summit finish, in any case, has achieved far less than might have been expected in the GC battle. Roglič is still the ‘virtual’ GC leader, even without la roja to prove it, and 15 riders remain within a minute of the Slovenian. Aleksandre Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Romain Bardet (Team DSM) Carapaz and Carthy may have lost time but they are still very much in the frame. Even Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), probably the outsider who suffered the most on Picón Blanco, is only two minutes back on Roglič. There is still everything to play for, in other words, for almost all the GC contenders.

For the overall favourites in any case, the next big challenge will be on the flat. Wednesday’s windswept stage to Albacete is traditionally beset with the risks of echelons and there is the recent precedent of Roglič’s near-disastrous performance on similar terrain when Deceuninck-QuickStep ripped the race apart in the 2019 Vuelta.

That was two years ago, though, and even if Roglič has submerged beneath the GC waves for now everybody knows he remains the man to beat. So in this first fraught week, Wednesday could prove a much better opportunity to try and shake the GC tree than the set-piece summit finish battles of Alicante and Andalucia.

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.