After such a tumultuous and unpredictable first half of the 2020 Vuelta a España, it's hard to believe that at the same point in the race last year, the only real obstacle separating Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) from his first Grand Tour victory in Madrid was being sure to stay safe and upright.
But that really was the case.
Halfway through the 2019 edition, Roglic enjoyed a two-minute advantage over closest rival Nairo Quintana, having crushed the opposition in the stage 10 time trial in Pau and proved himself more than capable of defending himself in the mountains further south. His rivals barely troubled him from then on. "He has a 90 per cent chance of winning the race," former Vuelta podium finisher Joaquim Rodriguez told Cyclingnews after the TT and, barring one major wobble on the day of the echelons in windswept central Castille, the main GC battle was all over bar the shouting.
Fourteen months on and with nine days left in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 edition, Roglic is the top Vuelta GC favourite again at the midpoint, as race leader Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) acknowledged on Wednesday, after the Slovenian had eaten away half of his slender GC advantage, to 13 seconds, thanks to his second summit finish stage win.
The similarities end there, however. With the race straddling October and November and in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the Vuelta's context also makes the race feel more unpredictable than ever. For multiple reasons, Roglic is far from home and dry.
First off, of course, is the obvious fact that Roglic is not in the lead and Carapaz's tenacious defence of the top spot overall on the most difficult summit finish to date, the Moncalvillo on Wednesday, suggests that the Ecuadorian will not give la roja up lightly.
Missing, for somewhat controversial reasons, from the Vuelta last year, Carapaz has progressed massively since he last rode the Spanish Grand Tour back in 2018 as a second-year WorldTour pro. Roglic knows this only too well, given he was roundly beaten by the Ecuadorian in the 2019 Giro d'Italia.
Of the three vital stages between Saturday and Tuesday, you could argue that on current evidence Carapaz looks to be roughly Roglic's equal in the mountains: Roglic's 13 seconds advantage on Wednesday's summit finish, given the intensity of the battle, is hardly a cast-iron race-winning level of climbing superiority. On the other hand, past history also tells us Carapaz will likely be a considerable disadvantage to Roglic in Tuesday's 34-kilometre time trial.
However, within that analysis, there are multiple variables. Firstly, Carapaz has considerable local knowledge of the weekend's climbs - he's won the Vuelta a Asturias, the headline regional race, both in 2018 and 2019. Secondly, in the most comparable recent time trial head-to-head between the two, the Giro d'Italia at San Marino last year, Carapaz lost two minutes on stage winner Roglic. That's not a ridiculous amount of time to expect he could gain on Roglic in the mountains of Asturias this weekend if he has a good day and Roglic a bad one.
There's also a tendency of Roglic's to consider: his ability to start out very strongly in Grand Tours, as he has done here in the Vuelta, but come off the boil in the second half. The drop off can be abrupt, like in the 2020 and 2018 Tours de France or more gradual like in the Giro in 2019, but either way, it may play in his rivals favour. Certainly, it means that even if Roglic gains the lead on the Ezaro time trial next Monday, unless he already has smashed the opposition in Asturias as well, all bets are off until the riders reach the final summit finish of the race next Saturday at Alto de Covatilla.
There is also the intriguing fact that Jumbo-Visma's Vuelta line-up, while individually powerful, manifestly do not have the same capacity to keep the kind of stranglehold on the opposition as they did in the recent Tour de France. Equally, Ineos Grenadiers do not have the same kind of strength in depth that they displayed in the recently completed Giro d'Italia.
For now, the team that has dominated events in Spain has been Movistar, and with their leader Enric Mas, fifth at 1:54 back, predicting that he will be favoured by more 'full-on' mountain stages like in Asturias, Carapaz is clearly not the only threat Roglic has to keep in mind.
Roglic's advantage over the other two rivals in the top five, Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) at 15 seconds and 31 seconds on Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) is also far less than his two-minute 'security cushion' he held over Quintana last year at this point in the race. On top of that Martin has oodles of Grand Tour experience - and won on La Covatilla in 2011 as well - and Carthy is clearly in brilliant climbing form, like Martin. Like Carapaz, the British racer also has previous success in the upcoming mountains, having won the Vuelta a Asturias in 2016 when he was with local squad Caja Rural.
Beyond Carapaz and the others GC challengers, there are plenty of middle-ranking to top names with nothing to lose for Roglic to keep an eye on, given they are out of the GC fight, but pushing hard to shine in the last segment of the disjointed 2020 season. Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren) a former winner (following Juan Jose Cobo's disqualification through a bio passport ban) on the Angliru and second in 2017, has shown with a sixth place in the Moncalvillo that he can't be ruled out. Former Vuelta podium finisher Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) has recognised he's one step off his top game, but could well get back into the fray. Valverde and Soler have already pulled off some memorable performances in this year's race, while Bora-Hansgrohe's Felix Grossschartner, sixth overall, may have the potential to do some GC damage.
Then there are swathes of other dangermen for the climbs, arguably most notably in the ranks of Astana where the Izagirre brothers, Omar Fraile, and Alexander Vlasov are all clearly in great shape, as well as Michael Woods, who already provided sterling support for Hugh Carthy on the Moncalvillo. Nor should Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), riding excellently in defence of his King of the Mountains jersey, be forgotten.
Last but not least, Roglic could be troubled by the unpredictable nature and history of the Vuelta itself. It's worth remembering the last racer to win the Vuelta for at least two years in a row was Roberto Heras between 2003 and 2005 and since then there have been plenty of cliff-hanger finales.
Halfway through the Vuelta then, Roglic remains the top favourite. But that old cliché that winning a second Grand Tour is always far harder than the first already proved surprisingly true for the Slovenian this September in the Tour. It may well do so again in the Vuelta two months later.
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