Kenny Elissonde couldn’t help but feel apologetic, even if he knew that he had nothing to apologise for. No rules, unwritten or otherwise, were broken on the road to Albacete on stage 5 of the Vuelta a España, where the Trek-Segafredo rider inherited the red jersey after race leader Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) was among the fallers in a mass crash with 11km to go.
Vigilance was the byword on the run-in, where the flat, exposed roads have historically lent themselves to crosswinds. Echelons had formed on five of the Vuelta’s last six visits to these parts, after all, and technical director Fernando Escartin had been, by his own admission, “deliberately nasty” in inserting several sharp changes of direction into the route.
Despite some considerable huffing and puffing at the head of the peloton in the final 50km, those much-feared echelons never formed, but just as the stage appeared to be petering out towards a bunch sprint, the crash with 11km remaining brought consternation.
Elissonde, who began the day second at 25 seconds back, found himself on the right side of the split, having been working to position his leader Giulio Ciccone at the front. Taaramäe, meanwhile, went down in the crash. The Estonian would come home 2:11 down on stage winner Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), wearing a jersey that was no longer his.
“This is not the way I wanted to take the jersey but we know in cycling when there is wind, there is risk,” Elissonde said after descending from the podium. “25 seconds, you can lose it with an echelon also, so you had to be vigilant. OK, I don’t like it, it was not a pleasure, but at the end of the day, I cannot do anything else. It’s how it is.”
Taaramäe had already crashed in Tuesday’s finale at Molina de Aragón, but he had the relative good fortune to do so inside the final 3km and thus incur no time loss in the incident. He had no such luck on Wednesday. Even though the peloton briefly stalled after the crash, there was little prospect of him battling his way back on here. So it goes.
“I’m a bit sorry for him, he’s a really nice guy, but that’s cycling,” said Elissonde, who had placed second to Taaramäe atop Picón Blanco on Monday.
“It was very nervous today with the possibility of echelons. You never want crashes, but we all knew there was a possibility of splits today, so we were all vigilant. I would have preferred to have taken the jersey à la pédale rather than because of someone else’s misfortune, but I just did my own race.”
When the Vuelta last visited Albacete seven years ago, a young Elissonde was FDJ’s protected general classification hope, but he was among the riders caught out when the peloton splintered into shards amid crosswinds in the finale. Even though his teammate Nacer Bouhanni won the day, it was a chastening experience for Elissonde and one that perhaps informed the career path he subsequently followed. Rather than attempt to fashion himself into a team leader, he soon repurposed himself as a climbing domestique, first at Sky and later at Trek-Segafredo.
Even though Elissonde was aware he had a chance to move ahead of Taaramäe in the event of splits on Wednesday afternoon, his principal duty was to help ensure his leader Ciccone remained well placed at the head of the peloton. When he heard the crash, his first thoughts were for the Italian rather than the prospect of donning the maillot rojo.
“I didn’t see the crash because I was in the first 10 riders in this moment, and I was afraid at first because I heard Cicco, our leader, was not in the group but he came back,” said Elissonde, who glanced down at the jersey as he spoke.
“It’s still incredible to wear this jersey. After riding the Tour and the Olympics, I took it easy. The team told me: ‘Kenny, you will go to the Vuelta and you will see day by day.’ And look, that’s cycling. It’s incredible. One day like this, it’s super cool, no?”
Elissonde was cautious about the prospect of holding the jersey for longer than a day, mindful that race favourite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) lies just five seconds down ahead of the uphill finish at Cullera on Thursday.
“You can’t forget that a rider like Primož Roglič is only at 5 seconds, and he’ll be a very tough opponent tomorrow,” Elissonde said. “It’ll be difficult to defend 5 seconds against a rider like that, but I’ll fight hard and try to ride smart. Tonight we’ll celebrate the jersey with the team and tomorrow will be a nice day in red.”
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