The Alto de Cullera was perhaps always likely to lend itself to Primož Roglič’s (Jumbo-Visma) qualities as a finisseur on stage 6 of the Vuelta a España, but that didn’t stop Egan Bernal from delegating his Ineos Grenadiers teammates to lay down a vicious tempo as the peloton hit the short, sharp climb to the finish.
Jhonatan Narváez was ardent in his forcing as the gradient stiffened, but such enthusiasm can be a blessing as much as a curse. Although the Ecuadorian succeeded in splintering the bunch, his pressing was so fervent that he also opened a small gap over his compatriot Richard Carapaz and his leader Bernal, who had been tucked on his wheel.
Amid the tumult, Narváez was initially unaware of the need to temper his pace, but the terms of engagement had been set in any case. A breathless climb ensued, with Aleksander Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) among those to launch accelerations. Bernal tracked the moves as best he could, but he was unable to match Roglič’s decisive acceleration in the final 300 metres.
While Roglič placed second on the stage in the same time as winner and early escapee Magnus Cort, Bernal came in eight seconds down in seventh place. That lifts him to fifth place overall, but he now lies some 41 seconds down on Roglič, who moved back into the red jersey atop the Alto de Cullera.
“We wanted to start in good position, and then Jhonatan was going for it like hell,” Bernal said. “He was going so hard - but so hard in fact that we couldn’t follow him to tell him to slow down. I just tried to follow him. If I was suffering, I can’t imagine what it was like behind.
“Maybe it was a bit of a mistake, because he was going so hard we were all having a really tough time following him. It was a short stage, but we paid for it a bit. But that’s how it was, and I’m generally happy with how it went.”
As on the previous summit finish at Picón Blanco on stage 3, Bernal was the best placed of Ineos’ triumvirate of leaders, and with each passing day, the Colombian appears to be underlining his status as the squad’s principal option at this race.
Adam Yates, already caught out when the bunch briefly splintered in crosswinds before the climb, conceded 25 seconds here, while Carapaz came home a further two seconds back. In the overall standings, Yates is 11th at 1:22, with Carapaz now already 2:18 off the pace in 18th.
Ineos Grenadiers had been prominent at the head of the race in helping to form the splits that developed with a little over 30km remaining, as the peloton hit narrow and exposed roads just inland from the Costa Blanca. Yates and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) were among the riders initially caught out, and though the peloton reformed ahead of the final ascent, it was a reminder that this Vuelta, despite its nine summit finishes, might not be won on set-piece finales alone.
“We had to try. If see you’re in front and can take the opportunity, then you have to do it,” said Bernal. “In a Grand Tour, the race isn’t just in time trials or on climb. You can win – or lose – with an echelon or on a downhill too.”
In the overall standings, Bernal now finds himself directly behind a trio of Movistar riders – Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde – though with Santiago de Compostela more than two weeks away, and with two mountain stages to come in the next three days, it is perhaps too early to consider whether the squad might become an ally of circumstance against Roglič.
“I don’t know, it depends on how the legs are. I think we can’t talk about tactics now, we need to see. In every Grand Tour, you just go day by day, but I’m feeling good so far,” said Bernal.
The Colombian won the Giro d’Italia in May but was diagnosed with COVID-19 immediately afterwards, and he admitted that he had been uncertain about the precise state of his condition ahead of this Vuelta. Although his deficit to Roglič continues to grow steadily, his own doubts are beginning to recede.
“I was better than I expected,” Bernal said. “I didn’t race much between the Giro and the Vuelta, and with the Covid all this stuff, I didn’t arrive here with the my best shape, that’s 100 per cent sure.
"I was a bit worried about today’s stage and also Picón Blanco. On an explosive finish like this, even if I’m 100 per cent, it’s difficult for me. And if I’m not at my best, it’s even more difficult, but I felt good.”
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