The Slovenian is going for his third successive Vuelta title and heads the list of contenders who will do battle across Spain in the hunt for the red jersey
Primoz Roglic crossed the line at La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020 with his helmet askew. He had just lost the Tour de France to fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates). Two months later, at the Vuelta a Espana, Roglic once again competed for victory at a Grand Tour, this time up against Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo). He would walk away the winner of that battle.
Fast forward to 2021 and all the Grand Tours are in their rightful places once again after a pandemic affected years force the 2020 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta to overlap. Coronavirus is far from being over, but the disruption is nothing compared to 2020 and there is a sense of something closer to normality in the peloton. Roglic took to the Tour de France again seeking yellow, but through incidents and injury he was forced to withdraw, his dream of yellow would have to wait once again.
But as had happened before, the phoenix rose. Roglic took gold in the Olympic time trial just four weeks after the Tour. And here we are again, with an event the Slovenian knows well, the Vuelta a Espana, can he hold on to red for the third year in a row cementing his comeback from bitter disappointment again and becoming one of only a handful of men to have won the Vuelta three times?
The answer is this that this edition of the Vuelta could be one of his hardest. We begin on part of the Camino di Santiago pilgrimage route in Burgos, and after a 3,417km lap of the country, we will finish at the end of the Camino at the holy city Santiago di Compostela. In between, the peloton will fight it out for the red jersey. The third week in particular will be brutal, with Stages 17 and 18 taking the riders up amongst the clouds to fight in the Asturias. And when all the climbing is over we will end this year’s edition with a 34km time trail into Santiago di Compostela, where the Cathedral looms. But it is not just the terrain Roglic will face. On this pilgrimage with him, he will face the likes of Enric Mas (Movistar), Mikel Landa (Team Bahrain Victorious), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), and last year’s podium finishers Carthy and Carapaz.
And, while Roglic may be relieved to see that the near-faultless Pogacar will miss the Vuelta, his biggest challenge will come from Colombian, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), as the 2019 Tour de France winner, and 2021 Giro d’Italia victor, tries to make himself the youngest ever man to have won all three Grand Tours at the age of 24, and one of a select group to have won two Grand Tours in one season. While the prospect of an almighty Roglic-Bernal-Pogacar battle will have to wait, Bernal vs Roglic could be the battle that lights up this Vuelta.
If Bernal is to win, however, he might have to do it in the mountains. That final-stage time trial cannot be ignored, and Bernal will be wary of it. Roglic is likely to have a healthy advantage in the almost 41km of time trialling over his General Classification rivals this Vuelta, and while there may have been some questions about his form following an incident packed Tour de France, the gold medal in the Olympic time trial – finishing a dominant one minute ahead of his rivals – ended that discussion.
Perhaps the deciding moment of the race will come on Stage 18, on the slopes the Gamoniteiro, a climb which has never before featured at the Grand Tour. At 15km long with an average gradient of 10-12 per cent and ending in a horrifying 17 per cent, this mountain in the Asturias will offer a vital chance for any pretenders to the crown to put time into Roglic before the final time trial. Not that Roglic is slow in the mountains, but the Olympic champion certainly isn’t in a time trial. The Gamoniteiro arrives deep into the third week, and just 24 hours after climbing Lagos de Covadonga, considered one of the toughest climbs in Spain. Any weaknesses in those who are still competing for overall victory at this point will be shown on these two major days.
Roglic must be the favourite to take the win and his third Vuelta in a row. He comes with a strong team in full support, and he will be hoping to be back to his imperious best, allowing no attack to get away from him. In fact, Jumbo-Visma are not even bringing a sprinter to the race, going all-in with climbers to back Roglic. American, Sepp Kuss, will be a pivotal asset to the Slovenian once again. He has shown his strength in the mountains before and Jumbo-Visma will expect the same. The Dutch team, when it all comes together, are perhaps the strongest team in male professional cycling right now, on the road, if not entirely in results, and they’ll be looking to prove it after failing at this year’s Giro and Tour.
Ineos Grenadiers have so far not managed to do what they do best this season. While they won the Giro d’Italia with Bernal, they have been unable to control the races in the same dominant fashion they once did. They enter the Vuelta with three (maybe even four) possible leaders and it could be argued that the inability to support a single leader in the Tour cost them against Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and it could do so again. One would have to assume Bernal will be the de facto leader – although he failed to impress at the Vuelta a Burgos – but with two further potential leaders in Olympic road race champion Carapaz and Adam Yates (who makes his first Grand Tour appearance for Ineos), will the Grenadiers have full harmony? And how will this fare against the commitment of Jumbo-Visma? That said, no one could doubt the quality that the Grenadiers is taking to this Vuelta.
That quality includes Tom Pidcock, just 22 years old and fresh from winning Britain’s first ever cross-country mountain biking Olympic gold medal. He will be looking to make an impression at his first Grand Tour. While he says he is there for experience, don’t count him out for a stage win. He will be intriguing to watch, and many eyes will be on him regardless of his results. His presence may also prove vital for whoever ultimately leads the Ineos Grenadiers.
What of the others? Mikel Landa, less than two weeks ago, took overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos, the final preparation race for the Spanish Grand Tour, beating the likes of Bernal, Romain Bardet (DSM) and Hugh Carthy. He also looked back to his best in this year’s Giro before an accident on Stage 5 forced him out of the race with a fractured clavicle and ribs. Bahrain-Victorious are bringing one of the strongest mountain support teams to the Vuelta with Mark Padun, Gino Mader, Damiano Caruso and Wout Poels this is where they will take the fight to Ineos and Jumbo-Visma. If Landa is in good form, as his recent win suggests he might be, he could well be competing for his first ever Grand Tour victory.
Britain’s Carthy is also looking good having taken the final stage of the Vuelta a Burgos with what looked like ease. The 27-year-old has been there or thereabouts for two years, always looking quietly menacing, but never completely following through. Certainly, after a top-10 finish at the Giro this year, and last year’s third place at the Vuelta, all signs suggest he’ll be competing for a Vuelta podium yet again.
And we have barely touched on Bardet, Mas, Esteban Chaves (Team Bike Exchange), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech), Fabio Aru (Qhubeka NextHash), Carapaz and Yates all of whom could play a part in deciding who wins the Red Jersey over the next three weeks.
As the Vuelta winds its way around the plains and mountains of Spain it will become clear who has the form and who does not. It is a cliche to say of every Grand Tour that there is nowhere to hide but it is certainly true of this edition of the Spanish race. With 41km of time trialling and a ferocious final week, not to mention the often less than ideal weather the Vuelta can throw up, there truly will be nowhere for Roglic and his rivals to hide.