Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) took a huge step towards overall victory in the Vuelta a España as he soared away alone to win on one of its most prestigious finishes in the Lagos de Covadonga and simultaneously regained the overall lead for a third and probably definitive time.
The Slovenian opted to go for broke on the rain-soaked stage 17 by following Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) up the road when the Colombian launched a long-distance attack some 60 kilometres from the line.
His gamble paid off in full as the two opened up a gap on a chase group spearheaded by Bahrain Victorious that remained at 90 seconds at the foot of Covadonga, and Bernal began to flail halfway up the final climb of the day.
Moving ahead, Roglič relentlessly increased his advantage all the way to the line, with his winning margin for this third 2021 Vuelta stage of 1:35 propelling him back into the lead and, with four days remaining, making a final third consecutive victory increasingly certain.
Asked afterwards if he had anything to say to defendants of the theory that Roglič often has trouble in the third week of Grand Tours, the Slovenian laughed a little and said "I think the results speak for themselves. I don't need to say anything, I enjoyed today.
"It was a great show, real bike racing. My thanks to all the supporters who were on the roadsides today despite the rain."
Roglič confirmed the impression he has been giving throughout this year's race, that he is enjoying the Vuelta more and more just for its own sake. And it was wholly within that spirit of taking pleasure from competing in itself that he said when Bernal attacked and he followed, it had not been a calculated manoeuvre.
"It was a long way from the finish, but I didn't think much, I just raced," he said. It was a similar strategy when he dropped Bernal six kilometres from the summit, too. "I rode at a hard pace, at that point Egan didn't follow, and I just went as fast as possible to the finish."
He recognised that of his eight stage wins at the Spanish Grand Tour, both as a performance and sporting exhibition, this was the most impressive. "It was my best show at the Vuelta, and I enjoyed it with all the support from the fans," he added.
Quite apart from the prestige of taking a win on one of the Vuelta's most emblematic finishes, historically, Roglič's margin of 1:35 is the greatest ever over a second-placed rider on the Lagos de Covadonga. For the record, it is 11 seconds larger than Colombian Lucho Herrera's margin on Vicente Belda back in 1987.
Herrera then went on to win the Vuelta outright in 1987 and Roglic, now 2:22 ahead of Enric Mas (Movistar), has taken a huge step towards fulfilling the urban legend that whoever leads the Vuelta at Covadonga will also win it outright.
But despite having some reservations about the size of his overall advantage and warning that Thursday's monster Asturian stage could hold some surprises, he confirmed that he was in a strong position to take the Vuelta a third consecutive time.
"It's never a big enough gap," he said, "but it's a good one. Tomorrow [Thursday] is a very hard stage, so let's see if it will be enough after then."
"We've still not won the Vuelta," Roglič's teammate Sepp Kuss told reporters after reinforcing Jumbo-Visma's superiority with a second-place on the stage, although he recognised Roglič was well placed to do so.
"Tomorrow is a stage like the Angliru, and things can still change. But we've got the final time trial as well."
Kuss, now eighth overall, confirmed that although the team had expected attacks by both Movistar and Ineos, Jumbo-Visma had not thought that Bernal would try such a long-range attack. "It was a great move," Kuss added.
Yet at the end of the day and while sparking huge admiration for his courage, Bernal's attack left Roglič in the pole position to go for the win, while Kuss was able to claim second. "I went for it because it's a dream to get that result on a climb like Covadonga," Kuss said. "But the real winner was Primož."
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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