The Ardennes Classics are types of races known to be notoriously difficult to control. The short, punchy climbs and winding narrow roads mean that when these races roll round each spring year on year, they are exciting and unpredictable. With this in mind, throwing an Ardennes-style stage in the back-end of a Grand Tour like the organisers have at this year’s Vuelta a España is like dropping a lit match into a bucket of petrol.
Stage 20 has the potential to throw up one final, dramatic twist in an edition of the Vuelta that has already been rife with controversy. While Jumbo-Visma’s leadership drama on the Angliru a few days ago seems to have reduced down to a simmer after Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič dutifully and perhaps begrudgingly, took on a support role for race leader Sepp Kuss in yesterday’s final mountain stage, one final test awaits the fractured team in yellow and black.
It's true that there are no climbs in stage 20 that are classified as harder than third category, the difficulty lies in their frequency. Similarly to races like Liège–Bastogne–Liège, the ascents are not especially steep but there are no less than 10 summits to be overcome in tomorrow’s stage, together amounting to over 4,000m of elevation gain. Added to the fact that this stage is, at 208km, the longest of the Vuelta, and you are left with one of the strangest and unpredictable ends to a Grand Tour in recent memory.
One person for whom this stage is perhaps most unwelcome is current red jersey wearer, Kuss. The American has a history of struggling on the more explosive, punchy climbs – of which there are many in stage 20 – and cracks emerged on the Angliru a few days ago when the pace of the GC group was constantly changing, rather than rode at a steady rhythm. Kuss currently has a lead of four minutes to Juan Ayuso in fourth place, the first rider in the overall rankings who isn’t one of his teammates, so his podium spot is almost certain, but the biggest danger to the American still lies in Vingegaard and Roglič who are hot on his heels.
To say that we might have a repeat of what happened on the Angliru where Roglič attacked Kuss and then continued to the summit and Vingegaard followed him is far fetched. Jumbo-Visma certainly seem to have come to the conclusion since then that Kuss will be their leader – perhaps due to the heavy pressure of public opinion. Problems may arise for Kuss, however, if his teammates are forced to follow attacks of GC contenders like Ayuso or Mikel Landa or Enric Mas, who could want to try and test them one more time in this race.
Jumbo-Visma may have decided that Kuss is the leader, but their priority will always remain winning the race with either Kuss, Roglič or Vingegaard. They will not sacrifice the chance of red if Kuss can’t keep up on the punchy climbs. If a GC threat from another team heads up the road, a Jumbo-Visma rider will follow, whether Kuss is there or not.
As always in cycling, there are an infinite number of possibilities and scenarios that could occur in tomorrow’s stage. Jumbo-Visma’s plan will likely be to try and control the breakaway formation part of the stage early on so that they allow a large group to get away with no serious GC threats in it and can ride steadily behind. A plan is one thing, though, and executing it is a different challenge altogether.
Remco Evenepoel, for example, has said that he hopes to win the stage by launching one of his signature attacks with 50 or 60km of the stage remaining, rather than by getting into the early breakaway. Decisive moves so late in the stage will certainly put Jumbo-Visma on edge, and may well scupper any plans they have altogether.
Attila Valter, a key Jumbo-Visma domestique, said to Eurosport/GCN ahead of tomorrow’s stage: “It’s a big one. We cannot say that we have this in the bag, we have a really tough stage coming up, a really strange stage in the Vuelta. If you had two or three big climbs then you would say it’s pretty easy because these three guys in the front, Jonas, Primož and Sepp are just so strong that you can’t put real pressure on them like we saw on the last days. This will be difficult to control and the attacks will be coming from left and right.”
Nobody is more acutely aware than Jumbo-Visma themselves that, although they hold the current top-three places on the general classification by a handsome margin going into the penultimate stage of the race, this Vuelta a España is certainly not a done deal. There could still be one more curveball, one more plot twist, one more dramatic turn of events. Sepp Kuss has one more day to get through before he can call this race his own, and it might just be the toughest yet.