Egan Bernal summed up the lay of the land at the Vuelta a España neatly in this, the third year of its Primož Roglič era. "Anything can happen," Bernal said during his rest day press conference on Monday, "but it's difficult to imagine winning the race."
While Roglič lined up for this Vuelta as the defending champion and, perhaps, the marginal favourite, Bernal arrived in Spain flanked by what appeared to be the strongest team in the race, with Adam Yates and Richard Carapaz as co-leaders, and athletes of the calibre of Pavel Sivakov, Tom Pidcock and Dylan van Baarle riding in support.
Nine days into the Vuelta, however, Ineos' collective might has so far failed to add up to the sum of its parts, while Roglič, for all his protestations to the contrary, looks in no way diminished by the lay-off that followed his Tour de France abandon. After a couple of off-key moments, his Jumbo-Visma squad also appears to be hitting its stride, with Sepp Kuss assured in his handling of Yates' first attack on the Alto de Velefique on Sunday afternoon.
Ineos, by contrast, appeared confused in their approach on Sunday. If Bernal is, as he repeated on Monday, short of his best and currently struggling to respond to accelerations, then why was Yates granted the freedom to launch a volley of attacks that created precisely the kind of racing conditions his co-leader would have preferred to avoid?
With two weeks of the Vuelta remaining and with Bernal ostensibly hoping to hit his stride as the race progresses, stage 9 was perhaps a little early in the game for Ineos to try to blow the red jersey group apart, particularly once it became apparent that they would not be able to isolate Roglič ahead of the final climb. No matter, Bernal now lies 5th at 1:52 and Yates 6th at 2:07 after they were both unable to keep pace with Roglič on the upper portion of the climb.
By the top of the mountain, Bernal and Ineos had been, at least temporarily, usurped by Enric Mas and Movistar as the biggest threat to Roglič's bid for a third successive overall victory. Mas has scarcely missed a beat on this race thus far, and he matched Roglič almost to the summit on stage 9 – though, inevitably, he had to give best when the Slovenian accelerated in search of bonus seconds within sight of the line.
In the overall standings, Mas lies 28 seconds down in second overall, while his teammate Miguel Angel Lopez sits in third place, 1:21 off the pace. Movistar's multi-pronged assaults on Grand Tours have occasionally been muddled over the years, but this time out, there appears to be rather greater cohesion.
While Bernal has repeatedly insisted that he is short of his best at this Vuelta, Mas acknowledged on Monday morning that he is more or less in the form of his life. Even so, he struck a similarly fatalistic note to Bernal when asked about the prospect of challenging – and beating – Roglič in the days ahead, especially if he were to endure a jours sans in the race's arduous third week.
"We can hope that'd happen, but it's not just Primož who could have a bad day. We all could have one," said Mas, slowing deflating the balloon. "When he lost the Tour in 2020 in that final TT, he wasn't really on a bad day, because he still beat me by a minute. Personally, I think he'll get better in the third week and he'll still be on top of his game."
Elsewhere, Jack Haig delivered a fine display on the Alto de Velefique to move up to fourth overall at 1:42, thus compensating for the collapse of his Bahrain Victorious leader Mikel Landa's challenge at the base of the ascent. Even before his elevation in the Bahrain Victorious hierarchy, however, Haig was of a view that Roglič was capable of going to places nobody else in this race could reach.
"To be honest, I think he's going to be incredibly hard to beat," Haig said. "I think the only person who can beat him is himself."
And yet, for all his quiet dominance – death by the metronomic accumulation of bonus seconds on summit finishes – Roglič is never quite entirely invulnerable. At the 2019 Giro d'Italia, Jumbo-Visma's over-thinking saw him fritter away a sizeable lead to Richard Carapaz and at the 2020 Tour de France, his failure to finish off Tadej Pogačar saw him sent sprawling to the canvas at La Planche des Belles Filles.
Even in his two Vuelta victories, Roglič has exposed his chin just enough to allow his rivals to dream of landing a sucker punch. In 2019, he was caught out in crosswinds on the road to Guadalajara, while last year, Carapaz almost snatched the race from him on the final ascent of the Covatilla. Roglič has looked very robust through the opening nine days in 2021, but his rivals will hope he at least presents them with a chance to test him between here and Santiago de Compostela.
"I think he needs to make a mistake for anybody else to capitalise," Haig said. "He's looking incredibly strong and it's hard to see him not winning the Vuelta, I think."
The road ahead
After Monday's rest day in Almería, the Vuelta resumes on stage 10 with a 190k run from Roquetas de Mar to Rincón de la Victoria that ought to lend itself to a breakaway, given that the category 2 ascent of Puerto de Almáchar in the finale ought to put victory beyond the reach of all of the sprinters bar Michael Matthews (BikeExchange). There are time bonuses on offer at the summit, which comes just under 17km from the finish.
Wednesday's finale at Valdepeñas de Jaén, on the other hand, could be a day for the general classification men if Jumbo-Visma are so inclined, though one senses Roglič would be content to let a break – and maybe even the maillot rojo – go if possible. There are bonuses on offer atop the category 2 Puerto de Locubin in the finale, which is followed immediately afterwards by the short and wickedly steep kick towards Valdepeñas de Jaen, where Igor Anton, Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno have previously won. Like at Cullera, Roglič could snatch seconds from Mas, Bernal et al here.
According to technical director Fernando Escartin, stage 12 to Cordoba "should be another sprint finish, but the sprinters' teams will have to work to make it happen" given that the Alto de San Jerónimo and the ominously-named category 2 ascent of Alto del 14% feature in the final 60km. Friday's flat run to Villanueva de la Serena, meanwhile, brings the race into Extremadura and it is difficult to envisage anything other than a bunch finish.
All told, the second week of this Vuelta is the race's lightest in terms of climbing, though the terrain becomes rather more rugged at the weekend, starting with the category 1 finish on Pico Villuercas on stage 14. The 165km stage takes in the category 3 Puerto Berzocana and the category 1 Alto Collado de Ballesteros before the long haul to Pico Villuercas (14.5k at 6.2%).
The week concludes with a stage through the Sierra de Avila towards El Barraco, hometown of the late José Maria Jimenez and 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre. The category 1 Alto de la Centenera, category 2 Puerto de Pedro Bernardo and category 1 Puerto de Mijares feature on a day where the terrain might lend itself to an ambush. Two weeks into a tough Vuelta, and with temperatures expected to soar, a very reduced group will be in front for the final, category 3 ascent to Puerto San Juan de Nava and the short drop into El Barraco.
The most arduous block of climbing of this Vuelta is still to come in the third week, not to mention the final time trial that everyone bar Roglič fears. The second week, by contrast, seems unlikely to prove decisive, but there is still scope for invention across the next six stages, especially as it may take an ambush or a mistake to discommode Roglič at this Vuelta.
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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.