Insatiable to the last, the ever-ambitous race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) swooped in on a small bunch sprint for a second time in this year’s Vuelta a España to claim a second place and a handy six-second time bonus for the overall standings.
Already a winner from a similar small group in the uphill finish in Suances, on Friday's flatter finish in Ciudad Rodrigo, Roglič was not fast enough to clinch a fifth victory in this year’s Vuelta. But second behind Magnus Cort (EF Pro Cycling) at the end of stage 16’s tough ride through the mountains of western Spain extended his overall lead to 45 seconds on the closest pursuer, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers). It is a warning shot across the bows of his rivals prior to Saturday’s showdown on La Covatilla, too.
The Slovenian’s latest second place has increased his already insurmountable lead in the points classification to a jaw-dropping 73 points over Carapaz, 54 more than the final 19-point gap that netted him outright victory in the same competition at the Vuelta last year.
But apart from going for yet another stage victory, afterwards Roglič freely admitted that whatever time bonus he took, be it four six or 10 seconds, it was never going to be unwelcome.
"I wanted to win, I always try my best if there is an opportunity," Roglič commented afterwards. "I came up a little short, but I got some bonus seconds.
"I always want to be as complete a rider as possible, so at the end of this stage, I thought why not? Maybe some fast guys have been dropped. And as the man wearing the green jersey [points leader], I can also do a sprint."
Thanks to three first places and three second places on mass-start stages, Roglič has now claimed 48 seconds worth of time bonuses, three more than his current GC lead on Carapaz. But for Saturday's fast-looming summit finish on the Covatilla, the race leader agreed it would be all about climbing, not his prowess in a sprint.
"I don't know what the climbs are like on Saturday, it's all going to be new for me," he admitted, "but I think everyone will go full gas from the beginning to the end. It's the last big day for GC, so everyone will attack."
Some of Roglič's rivals were not prepared to wait so long, though. On stage 16's potentially dangerous incursion through the Sierras de Francia, at the bottom of the descent of the mid-stage category 2, the Portillo, and all the way to the final ascent of the first-category Robledo, Ineos Grenadiers looked as if they might try to stretch things out in the front group.
But despite Andrey Amador's best efforts, and some hard work from Dylan van Baarle and - after being out of the action for most of the race - young Colombian Ivan Sosa, the main group tensed a little, but it never really shattered.
Asked if he noticed the effects of the stepped-up pace that Ineos Grenadiers had tried to set, Roglič confirmed that he had done so and that "it was not the most comfortable." But also, he insisted, their acceleration had no real effect, or as he put it, "we managed it well."
Whether it was because he was pleased with his unexpected second place in the sprint or because he and Jumbo-Visma had stifled Ineos Grenadiers' timid assault on his lead so successfully, Roglič was in notably good humour after the stage. He even cracked a joke - not a frequent occurrence in public, although probably more frequent than in last year's Vuelta - when he was asked if he expected a similar scenario on the Covatilla to the one that played out in last year's Vuelta, where Tadej Pogacar attacked and Movistar effectively gave the Slovenian an armchair ride up the final climb of Plataforma de Gredos.
"Well I don't expect Tadej will attack," Roglič said with a grin, "but we will see how it goes. We have a really strong team here, so we will do our best."
Was 45 seconds enough of an advantage? "We'll see, but better 45 seconds ahead than 45 seconds behind."
Nor did Roglič rule out making an attack himself, if the opportunity arose. "Yes, for sure, if I have the legs, I'll definitely go for it."
And raising his rivals' awareness of that possibility was surely yet another advantage of going for it in those bonus seconds in the sprint.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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