A tale of two strategies at the Vuelta a España: Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers had two riders in the top 10 ahead of stage 9 but the two leading squads in the race played their hands in very different ways on the Alto de Velefique.
While Ineos granted Adam Yates the latitude to attack as he saw fit, seemingly even at the cost of troubling Egan Bernal, Jumbo-Visma kept Sepp Kuss on a rather tighter brief as part of a scheme built entirely around the ambitions of race leader Primož Roglič.
Kuss, who began the day eighth overall at 59 seconds, was deployed to shepherd Roglič as far as possible and, if required, to track the opening gambits of Ineos and Movistar on the final ascent. The American performed his task diligently, marking Yates and Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar) when they accelerated 10km from the summit.
"I was up there on GC so it was good if I could follow them and sit on, but it was a super-strong attack and I definitely suffered a bit," said Kuss afterwards. "It's good to be able to cover the moves so Primož can sit back a little bit."
Roglič didn't take a back seat for long. After Kuss had smothered that initial offensive, the maillot rojo himself was able to respond in measured terms to Yates' next accelerations before striking off in the company of Enric Mas (Movistar) with 4km or so remaining, with the rest of the GC contenders scattered across the mountainside.
While early escapee Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) held on to win the stage, Roglič outsprinted Mas for second place, gaining 39 seconds on Yates and 1:05 on Bernal in the process. In the overall standings, Roglič is 28 seconds ahead of Mas, while the Ineos duo of Bernal and Yates are now fifth at 1:52 and sixth at 2:07, respectively. The third prong of the leadership trident, Richard Carapaz, ends the first week out of the hunt almost 11 minutes down on GC.
Ineos had laid out their ambitions by setting the tempo at the base of the climb and Yates had sought to discommode Roglič with his attacks, but the Slovenian appeared as impregnable as ever by day's end. Starting the Vuelta with three leaders offered Ineos an insurance policy of sorts, and although their race is far from run, none of them appears to offer the same guarantees as Roglič.
"I think they had to try something for sure," Kuss said of Ineos' approach. "From my side, we were really strong, we had a lot of guys left in the group and we just did our own race. As for Ineos, it's sometimes hard to communicate if you have multiple leaders. If one's feeling really good and the other's not so much, that can sometimes clash a little bit."
There were no such mixed messages at Jumbo-Visma, where the squad were content to allow Ineos to take up the reins at the head of the bunch for much of the stage. When Ineos briefly relented ahead of the final climb, Jumbo-Visma took over, but at a less rasping intensity, allowing the escapees to extend their advantage once again.
"Ineos rode really hard on the climb and then after that, they stopped, but we didn't need to control for the stage win, so we just rode our own pace. We weren't worried about the breakaway," said Kuss, who remains in eighth place overall, now 2:40 off Roglič, after placing 11th on the stage.
After marking Yates' first move, Kuss did what he could for Roglič further up the climb, though there was little need for additional communication. It was already clear how Roglič's afternoon would play out. "He didn't say anything, I think everybody was breathing pretty hard," Kuss laughed. "But if I can stay there with him as long as possible, that's always good."
As the Vuelta enters its first rest day, Roglič is in a very familiar position atop the overall standings as he seeks a third successive overall victory. He may not have expected to find Mas as his closest challenger at this juncture, but Roglič acknowledged the Spaniard was, for now at least, a more dangerous rival than Bernal.
"At the moment, it seems like it, eh?" Roglič said. "But I haven't really seen the results yet. It's still super long and everything will for sure go upside down in the next ten days. In the end, after the time trial [on the final day] we will know for sure who is the best."
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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.