“Wait until Sierra Nevada,” Ben O’Connor said at the start of the Vuelta a España’s second week. He was talking about the Remco Evenepoel-Primož Roglič duel atop the overall standings, but it could have doubled as an assessment of his own prospects.
On Sunday, O’Connor delivered his best performance of the race on the most arduous afternoon so far, matching Roglič all the way to the Vuelta’s highest point atop Sierra Nevada. In the here and now, that display only lifts him a single place in the general classification, but he will have reason to believe he can climb still higher in the final week.
O’Connor tracked Roglič’s acceleration with a kilometre or so remaining to place 6th on the stage, 1:44 behind escapee Thymen Arsenman. Roglič was satisfied to put fifteen seconds into Evenepoel, while O’Connor moved up to 9th overall, 8:57 off the red jersey.
The AG2R Citroën rider had struggled at times on the Vuelta’s earlier summit finishes, where the bulk of the day’s climbing was shoehorned into explosive finishing ascents. The longer, steadier efforts over the Alto del Purche and up to Sierra Nevada on stage 15 played more obviously to his qualities of endurance.
“I felt good today: it was kind of down my alley where it’s not just a one-climb session but kind of hard all day,” O’Connor said when he wheeled to a halt in the mixed zone at the summit. “That was good for me, so I’m happy with today.”
O’Connor was pedalling smoothly when the red jersey group was pared down to just five riders with 15km or so remaining on the final climb, but the AG2R Citroën rider, who trains regularly at Sierra Nevada, meted out his effort carefully.
He opted not to follow Enric Mas (Movistar) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Premier Tech) when they jumped clear midway up the climb, preferring to leave his effort until a kilometre or so from the summit. It was a sage decision.
“With altitude, it’s about controlling your effort and making sure you’re never over your limit. I was a bit worried to go with Lopez and Mas, and in the end, I didn’t lose much to them,” said O’Connor. “I think we finished fast, so I hope we got a bit of a gap on the other guys.
“It was kind of crosswind the whole time, that’s why we were all in the left gutter the whole climb. But I’ve been up when it’s been a lot more windy, so I’m glad there wasn’t a hurricane up here.”
The isolated Evenepoel was compelled to perform much of the pace-making in the red jersey group on the exposed road up Sierra Nevada, with Mas, Lopez, Roglic and O’Connor lined up behind him. “I mean, Remco had to ride. I didn’t have to ride, I was 10th overall. It’s up to him,” O’Connor said. “I sat there and just waited. Remco just rode his pace the whole time. And if there’s someone to sit behind, he’s probably one of the best for it because he’s fast.”
O’Connor was biding his time for the final ramps that led to the summit, though Roglič – another man who has spent weeks at a time cloistered in training camps on this mountainside – had the same idea. When the Slovenian accelerated, O’Connor came along for the ride, leaving Evenepoel to limit his losses alone. “I was literally just about to jump but Primož went first. He pretty much beat me to it,” O’Connor said. “He rode full to the finish and that was my max too.”
As at La Pandera a day earlier, the haul to Sierra Nevada suggested a shift in the momentum of this Vuelta, and not only in the duel between Roglič and Evenepoel. Before this Vuelta, O’Connor hadn’t raced since abandoning the Tour de France with COVID-19 and he confessed to struggling with the humidity earlier in the race. The terrain in the final week is not entirely to his liking, but at Sierra Nevada, he had the look of a man beginning to hit his stride.
“I don’t think we’ve got another stage like this until stage 20,” O’Connor said. “But it’s going to be interesting to see how the final plays out.”
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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.