Round one to Jumbo-Visma at the Vuelta a España. Primož Roglič fulfilled expectations by winning the opening time trial in Burgos and perhaps surpassed them by putting almost half a minute into Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers).
Sepp Kuss, meanwhile, quietly underlined the squad’s strength in depth by helping himself to the king of the mountains jersey after placing 12th in the 7.1km test that started and finished in the shadow of the city’s imposing Gothic cathedral.
The American claimed the polka dot jersey after he recorded the quickest time in the first 2.5km of the stage, which brought the riders up the category 3 Alto del Castillo, and he performed smoothly on the drop back into town to boot. He finished the stage 15 seconds down on Roglič but ahead of almost all of the men expected to challenge his leader for the maillot rojo from here to Santiago de Compostela on September 5.
“It’s a really good course for me, it actually suits me pretty well because there’s not really too much pacing, you just go and don’t really look at your power,” Kuss told reporters in the mixed zone as he waited for the last wave of riders to complete their efforts.
“I knew the climb was the only part of the course for me to use my strength so I went as hard as I could on the climb. I just tried to hold on on the last part of the course. It was a short effort, not like the real mountains, but for sure it's good for the confidence.”
At that point, Kuss was aware that he had posted the fastest time up the Alto del Castillo, though he suspected that some riders who had equipped themselves specifically for that task – such as Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo) – might deny him a visit to the podium on Saturday evening.
“I was going with my TT bike, but I saw some guys starting on road bikes, so maybe they were going for it,” he said. “But for sure someone will light it up there, probably Primož.”
Roglič would be 3 seconds slower than Kuss on the climb, but the Slovenian lived up to his teammate’s expectations thereafter, swooping confidently down the other side and then extending his advantage over Bernal et al on the run-in to the finish.
Of the touted podium contenders, only Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-PremierTech) managed to keep his losses to within 14 seconds, while Romain Bardet (DSM) will surely be pleased to have limited the damage to 17 seconds. For others, like Richard Carapaz (35th at 25 seconds), Bernal (46th at 27 seconds) and Mikel Landa (88th at 39 seconds), the evening was rather more underwhelming.
But while those time losses are significant, it is never wise to extrapolate too much about a Grand Tour from a short opening time trial. “There’s not too much to read into it because there’s so much hard racing to come,” Kuss said. “If you do a good TT, it’s a good morale boost, but you can derive too much from this sometimes.”
Or, as Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Grischa Niermann put it: “It’s the start we wanted, but we are 7 kilometres into the Vuelta, and there’s still 3,400 kilometres to come.”
It might be possible to make firmer projections, mind, on the basis of the next crucial 7 kilometres or so on this Vuelta route, when the peloton tackles the stiff summit finish to Picon Blanco on stage 3. That same climb splintered the group of favourites at the Vuelta a Burgos last week, and it has the potential to open yet wider gaps in the general classification here.
“I did it last year in Burgos. It’s brutal, it’s exposed and super steep, so for sure there will be some big differences,” Kuss said. “You have to come in and be ready from the beginning, so that changes the approach to the race. It makes the timing a bit harder if you’re trying to be good in the third week. But that’s what makes the Vuelta the way it is and what makes it so exciting.”
The Vuelta rarely runs exactly according to the script, of course, as Roglič discovered in both of his overall victories, and while Sunday’s opening road stage looks destined to favour the sprinters, the exposed roads and gusting winds around Burgos mean that there are pitfalls aplenty.
“Tomorrow is a sprint stage with quite a chance of some wind,” Niermann warned. “We have to be very alert and with a really strong team.”
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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, published by Gill Books.