After four transitional stages across southern Spain since last Monday’s first rest day, the battle for red should intensify with a tough double-header in the Montes de Toledo this weekend.
Since getting into an opportunistic breakaway on Tuesday’s stage to Rincon de la Victoria, Norway’s Odd Christian Eiking has enjoyed three largely stress-free days in the red jersey – the second Intermarche-Wanty-Rider to lead this race following Rein Taaramae’s two-day stint in the maillot rojo after the Estonian veteran’s victory in Stage 3.
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Eiking’s reign in red has been an unexpected bonus for the Belgian team, whose step-up to the WorldTour this year was met with raised eyebrows by many. Indeed, Intermarche may well have the luxury of making topical football-related jokes today – but they’re lucky Ronaldo didn’t delay his return to Manchester United after the weekend because, well, there isn’t much chance their man will still be sporting the same colours come Sunday.
As things stand, Eiking holds a 58-second gap over his former Wanty teammate Guillaume Martin of Cofidis – although neither the 26-year-old Norwegian nor the Frenchman can realistically be expected to hold the big race favourites at bay during Saturday’s 165km Stage 14 from Don Benito to Pico Villuercas.
A flat opening 50km morph into an uphill grind then a quick descent to the foot of the first climb, the leg-stretching Cat.3 Puerto Berzocana (7.7km at 5.2%). This is almost instantly followed by the short but sharp concrete-slabbed Cat.1 Puerto Collado de Ballesteros (2.8km at 14%) with its maximum tilt of 20% near the summit.
The riders then descent down what will form the majority of the final climb ahead of a spiky section where the intermediate sprint will play out ahead of that decisive final test, the Cat.1 Pico Villuercas. It’s 14.5km long at an average gradient of 6.2% with a final section reaching 15% and rising above the previous summit of the Ballesteros.
Supposing we take both Eiking and Martin out of the equation, Roglic, the defending champion, is our virtual red jersey with a lead of 35 seconds on Spain’s Enric Mas and 1:33 over Miguel Angel Lopez of Colombia. The Movistar duo have looked very solid but it remains to be seen how they ride once the chips are down and both their places on the final podium are in play.
In virtual fourth place is the Australian Jack Haig who is 1:59 down on Roglic but in possession of a role call of climbing talent at his Bahrain Victorious team, including Wout Poels, Mark Padun and the current polka dot jersey Damiano Caruso. The Basque climber Mikel Landa would usually be added to this list, but he has been pedalling squares since the opening week and it’s doubtful how much an impact he can still have in the race.
Completing this top five is the Colombian Egan Bernal, who sneakily snatched back five seconds from his rivals after finishing on the right side of a split in Stage 13. Bernal is in the white jersey as best young rider but he doesn’t look to be the same force as he was when winning the Giro d’Italia this May. He also had a large gap of 2:45 to close on Roglic – in a race where he’s conceded time to his rival on most climbs.
‘There’s a lot of anger’ – Roglic involved in crash on Stage 12
But Bernal’s combative finish to Stage 13 perhaps highlights he is on an upward trajectory. And with Ineos Grenadiers teammate Adam Yates perhaps feeling the pinch after that crash with Roglic in Stage 12, Bernal may finally stake a definitive claim to the team leadership, with the Ecuadorian livewire Richard Carapaz having already fallen well back.
If Saturday’s first stage in the Montes de Toledo could well produce some sizable GC gaps by the finish, Sunday’s Stage 15 could be even more telling: four tough climbs over 197km on a day where the accumulation of gentler, but longer, gradients could take their toll at the end of what has been a sweltering second week.
That Cat.1 Alto de la Centenara (15.1km at 5.5%) is followed by the Cat.2 Puerto de Pedro Bernardo (9km at 4.2%), the Cat.1 Puerto de Mijares (20.4km at 5.4%) and the final climb, the Cat.3 Puerto de San Juan de Nava (8.6km at 3.8%). A flourish of route planning sees the finish come 5km after the last summit to keep the suspense going a little longer.
It’s a weekend that should help us answer numerous questions. In no particular order:
- What effect did two crashes in three days have on Primoz Roglic’s body?
- Were those five gained seconds a sign of desperation from Egan Bernal or an indication that the Colombian is finally hitting his stride in Spain?
- How will the Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez combination fare for Movistar with both riders vying a spot on the final podium?
- Is Mas really the strongest climber at this race and can he actually put the defending champion under serious pressure? Or will Movistar’s weakened team of six struggle?
- How will Adam Yates respond following that crash in Stage 12 and would he be prepared to put his ambitions aside in support of Bernal? Does Richard Carapaz have anything to offer himself?
- Will Jack Haig simply follow in a bid to notch a maiden top five finish or will the Australian look to shape the outcome? What role, if any, can his freefalling teammate Mikel Landa play?
- Will Bahrain Victorious prioritise Haig’s GC tilt over Damiano Caruso’s polka dot jersey or a stage win for someone like Landa or Mark Padun?
- Could Odd Christian Eiking or Guillaume Martin surprise us all and enter the red jersey battle, or will they fade as expected?
- Will the battle for red effectively be over after the weekend or can we expect things to be perfectly poised going into Monday’s second rest day?
If the last week of this Vuelta looks particularly brutal – in particular with the Covadonga-Gamoniteiru double header for Stages 17 and 18 – then the penultimate weekend’s stages in the Montes de Toledo should shape the kind of race we see once the seriously steep and difficult terrain comes along on Wednesday. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
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Source: Euro Sports