With six days left to race in the 2021 Vuelta a España, the good news for Movistar is their double-pronged attack in their home Grand Tour remains in as strong a position as it did on the first rest day. The bad news is that a week has gone by and the team’s situation has not changed radically for the better, either.
As things stand, Enric Mas lies 4th overall, 2:11 down on red jersey Odd Christian Eiking (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and 35 seconds down on overwhelming favourite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). His co-leader Miguel Angel López is fifth and 1:28 behind Roglič.
That's just seven seconds worse than they were a week ago in comparison with Roglič after the opening leg of the Vuelta, and in the intervening period they also distanced other key rivals like Adam Yates and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) when they latched onto the Slovenian’s surprise attack last Tuesday.
Speaking on the Vuelta’s second rest day on Monday, Mas said that the third week of the race – and, more specifically, its two stages in the mountains of Asturias – is where he and López must both try to attack Roglič and distance their other rivals too.
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Yet, as Mas pointed out, even if the past weekend of climbing in western Spain did not produce many changes overall, the racing itself has been far more aggressive and intense than the results would suggest.
"Perhaps it hasn’t seemed so hard on the television, but inside the peloton it’s not been like that at all," Mas said on Monday.
"We wanted to gain time on Saturday and Miguel Ángel went for it, but there was a strong headwind, and Roglič had three riders with him and could close down the gap easily.
"[Stage 15 to] El Barraco was really tough, we went flat out all day. Wanty were driving throughout the entire stage. Even though there were barely any attacks, Yates went for it and I followed, but Roglič was straight on my wheel, and there were only 15 riders in the leader’s peloton at the end. In the third week, I’m sure there will be a big battle."
Mas denied that he has calculated how much time he needs to gain on Roglič before Sunday’s final time trial in Santiago de Compostela, where the Slovenian is certain to be at an advantage.
"We really haven’t thought it through, and we’re not going to think it through either," he said. "On paper on Tuesday we have a flat stage for the sprinters, although it’s rarely actually flat in Cantabria.
"Then after that there are the two mountain stages in Asturias where we’ll have to be in good shape and gain time. We all know Lagos de Covadonga and it’s a climb where you can gain time. We’ll try to win overall with me or with López."
López was more forthcoming about how much of an advantage he would need over Roglič ahead of the final time trial.
"I think I’d need two minutes on Roglič," López commented, before immediately upping that estimate afterwards to "two minutes at least - he’s the Olympic TT champion."
'The race is going to explode'
While Roglič is at the centre of the GC battle, Mas warned that it would make no sense to rule out Bernal, or indeed Yates, or Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) from the final battle.
"They have to go on the attack as well," he pointed out, though he added, just as he did on the first rest day, that he has "no feeling at all that Roglič is going to be on the decline in the third week.
"I wouldn’t say he’s going to get better, though, either. But he’s one of the best riders in the world and I think he’s in a very good place, not tired at all."
López’s analysis of the imminent GC battle was a little more dramatic. "With or without attacks, the race is going to explode," he said. "People are tired and that’s going to count for a lot in this third week."
López pointed out that Movistar are lacking two riders in the team’s line-up, after Alejandro Valverde and Johan Jacobs were forced to quit following crashes. "Not having a complete team makes things more uncertain for us," he recognised.
Ineos Grenadiers are in a similar situation, having lost both Richard Carapaz and Jhonatan Narvaez. Regarding the lack of aggressive racing by both Bernal and Yates, barring the Briton’s one short-distance attack on Sunday, López said: "If they’ve been so inactive, it must be for a reason. But they’ve got through the toughest days, too. You can’t completely rule them out."
The other riders giving López food for thought are the race leader Odd Christian Eiking and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), who sits second overall having leapt up the standings in the same breakaway last week.
"We’re all wondering about them a bit," he said. "I thought they would be dropped but instead he [Eiking] had a very solid team, they knew how to handle the race and were clearly very motivated. We hadn’t seen them like that before, but there they are."
However, with six days remaining and the whole race to play for, Mas and López know they cannot afford to wait for much longer before making their own, definitive, bids for success. And if the Movistar duo have anything to do with it, the sparks will surely fly in Asturias on the race’s two most difficult remaining summit finishes.
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