An hour or so after the finish of stage 7 of the Vuelta a España, race leader Primož Roglič sat on a park bench at the viewing point atop Balcón de Alicante, eating his post-stage recovery meal from a tupperware container.
The podium ceremony was over and his media duties were completed, but the traffic was still clearing on the mountainside. Rather than sit waiting in a line of slow-moving cars, Roglič elected to dine alfresco, waving courteously in response to salutations from passers-by.
In three Vuelta appearances, Roglič has grown rather used to reaching the Jumbo-Visma hotel a couple of hours later than his teammates.
The Slovenian visited the podium on Friday afternoon for his 29th maillot rojo in just 47 stages, though he had hoped a fellow countryman might spare him the honour here.
Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) was the highest placed rider on GC in the sizeable break that formed on the first climb of Puerto la Llacuna, and it seemed clear that Roglič would have liked to lend the overall to his compatriot, as he did in Pinerolo on the 2019 Giro d'Italia.
"Yeah, why not, eh? Definitely, he deserved it," Roglič said afterwards. "If I remember right, he took the jersey from me at the Giro, so again, super sweet worries for Slovenians."
It wasn't to be, as Polanc faded as the break splintered in the final hour of racing, while the forcing of Adam Yates' brought a reduced red jersey group close enough to ensure Roglič would keep his lead, 8 seconds ahead of another escapee, Felix Großschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe). Roglič came home aloxngside his direct rivals, 3:33 down on winner Michael Storer (DSM).
"For me it was a hard day. It was just super hot and we went all-out already on the first climb," said Roglič. "Then it was long for me, and I was waiting to come to the finish."
'You can have plans but it was about racing'
Roglič occasionally appeared isolated during a breathless day of racing, and he was even moved to respond in person to an attack from Richard Carapaz (Ineos) and Miguel Angel López (Movistar) on Puerto El Collao.
Later in the stage, Robert Gesink brought a degree of calm to the red jersey group with a long, long stint of pace-making ahead of the final ascent, while Roglič also had Sepp Kuss representing his interests in the front group. It wasn't how Jumbo-Visma had planned their day, but at the Vuelta, strategies are flexible by necessity.
"Yeah, you can have some plans on these kinds of days, but as we saw it was about racing," Roglič said. "The breakaways went and went, and in the end you have to accept the situation as it is. And in that case, it was definitely nice to have a guy like him in the break."
In comparison with the aggression that preceded it, the final haul up the new ascent of Balcón de Alicante proved a relative stalemate among the overall contenders, though Yates' pace-making saw Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) concede half a minute on Roglič, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and the Movistar duo of López and Enric Mas, who all came home together.
In the overall standings, Roglič remains 25 seconds clear of Mas, 36 up on Lopez and 41 ahead of Bernal.
"Steep," Roglič laughed when asked to describe the final climb. "Yeah, it was a steep climb. Anyway, it was a hard day from the very start and it was super hot. It was very nice in the end to go to the finish line here."
One of Roglič's rivals didn't make it that far on Friday. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was a determined attacker on the Collao but his offensive ended when he crashed and slid off the road. He remounted and attempted to race on, but he was ultimately forced to give best to his injuries.
"I just saw him slipping away off the road. It's shit. Hopefully he will recover fast," said Roglič, who knows that his rivals from both Movistar and Ineos still have multiple options at their disposal.
"They can play a bit more with attacking: first one and then another, like we saw today. But also today our guys were super strong. We have to focus on that and keep doing our job."
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