Marc Soler’s victory on stage 5 of the Vuelta a España showed remarkable tenacity and determination as he held off the rest of the break for nearly 20 kilometres into Bilbao. It was far from the first time this year that the UAE Team Emirates racer had shown such courage against the odds - this time, he came out smiling.
This summer, few fans who saw the images of Soler trying desperately to beat the time limit on stage 16 of the Tour de France will have been able to forget them. Repeatedly vomiting as he rode alone to the finish, and despite being advised to quit, the clearly ill Soler did his utmost to stay in the race and not further deplete an already weakened UAE Team Emirates of team workers in support of Tadej Pogačar,
That day, it failed to work out, as Soler crossed the stage 16 finish line a frustratingly close 15 minutes outside the time limit. But on stage 5 in the Vuelta a España, it was another story altogether, as the Catalan fended off the break by a far narrower margin of just a handful of seconds to claim the win.
If the Vuelta a España victory was a form of redemption for Soler after his difficult Tour de France, it also, he said, was a kind of reward for his determination not to lose faith after his terrible crashes and subsequent abandon on the first stage of the Tour de France in 2021.
That in turn had been preceded by a crash and abandon in the 2021 Giro, meaning there was a lot of past emotional baggage for Soler to put behind him this Wednesday as he fought to reach Bilbao's Gran Via ahead of the break.
“I’m pleased above all that after so much that didn’t work out and all the suffering I’ve been through and my family’s been through, this has all paid off,” Soler told journalists. “Above all, it’s for those reasons.”
Asked specifically about his appalling and ultimately futile attempt to finish inside the time limit on the Tour stage to Foix, Soler said, “that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about, all those hard times, the crash in the Tour last year and the abandon this year.
"I’d never really got things back on track until now. So I’m very happy with how it all worked out now, and I’ll keep on fighting.
“This is only stage 5 and we have to help João [Almeida] fight for the GC. But we can’t let these opportunities go by.”
Soler said that despite appearances, his victory had little similarity to when he had won a first-week stage of the Vuelta in 2020, also solo and also close to the Basque Country.
But while his 2020 win provided a much-needed morale boost for his team, Movistar, this time round the triumph was arguably more to provide closure for Soler on a personal level.
As he repeated, “This victory came after a very hard year and injuries, so to be able to win today was very special.”
Movistar did provide a small contribution to his success on Wednesday, as it happened, with several commentators noticing that he crossed the finish line with a Movistar bidon on his bike.
“The group split apart the first time over the Vivero and there were eight or nine riders ahead, but the team car was stuck behind the other half of the break,” Soler recounted, “So, as I didn’t have a bidon, but Patxi [Vila] and Pablo [Lastras, team directors - Ed.] were in the Movistar team car and they gave me a bottle of water. So, my thanks to them.”
Soler's thirst for victory has also seen him end a lengthy drought for Spain on Grand Tour success, as he became the country’s first winner on GT stages in 122 days of racing, ever since Ion Izagirre won in the Vuelta at Formigal in 2020.
But that chance to take such a rare triumph for the host nation was by no means uppermost in Soler’s mind when he bridged across to Jake Stewart (Groupama-FDJ) and then soloed away across the summit of the Alto del Vivero en route to victory in Bilbao, 14 kilometres further on.
As Soler recounted, he had not had time to think through his difficult first part of the season on the final part of the stage, where his lead came down to less than five seconds at times, “just that I was going to give it all. The absolute maximum," he said.
"I knew I wouldn’t have much chance in a sprint because I’d be tired from how I’d worked to stay away, and in the last four kilometres, I thought it was going to be touch and go. But in the last 300 metres, I could look round and see what the gap was, and actually enjoy the final few moments.”
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.