Opinion: What could have been – Why stage nine of the Vuelta a España was disappointing

Echelons that weren’t televised, a neutralised GC battle and makeshift finale

The Vuelta a España is on a roll. And not in a good way. When the race opened with a slippery, dark and wet team time trial in Barcelona nine days ago, it seemed as if, surely, that was going to be the worst of the poor planning and bad luck that the organisers would face over the next three weeks. But in stage two came an early neutralisation due to a dangerous finale, then came Remco Evenepoel’s collision with a team doctor after stage three to Arinsal when barrier placement at the finish line prevented the Belgian from slowing down in time after sprinting to the stage win. A few calmer, more formulaic stages followed, but stage seven’s technical, crash-filled run to Oliva was a sign that the curse that appears to be haunting this year’s race was on its way back with a vengeance. Today’s stage nine to Collado de la Cruz de Caravaca only confirmed that.

Things didn’t start well from a fan perspective. Pictures trickled onto social media of the race’s opening kilometres, with the live coverage not set to start for over an hour and a half. The images showed echelons, and lots of them. It looked like the sort of racing that needed to be watched to be understood, like it could have been potentially the most exciting part of this Vuelta so far: Jumbo-Visma were on the front, GC contenders were caught out, the peloton averaged 51kmph in the first hour of the race, yet fans were left refreshing social media to get a taste of what was going on. In one of the biggest bike races in the world, it would be fair to expect better.

When the live coverage began in earnest with 90 kilometres of the stage remaining, the breakaway had formed and already built a time gap of over eight minutes. The echelons did start again 10 kilometres later, with white jersey wearer Lenny Martinez a key rider caught on the back foot. After plenty of work from his Groupama-FDJ teammates, the peloton regrouped at the foot of the penultimate climb. In the end, the echelons that looked like they might have been crucial to the race, amounted to very little in terms of making a difference in the general classification. 

There were rumours of more wind to come later in the race, none of which surfaced, and the gap to the breakaway grew, once again. From a stage that had fans on the edge of their seats, it became one with a sort of foregone conclusion: the peloton had eased up and it would be the riders up front who would fight for the victory. Still though, there was a race to be had later on. The final climb to Alto Caravaca da la Cruz should have been the perfect stage for a GC battle, as well as the decider of the stage winner from the breakaway. With this in mind, we watched and we waited.

But with less than 20 minutes of racing until the peloton was due to hit the bottom of the climb, a crucial announcement was made. The riders would not race to the finish line in Alto Caravaca da la Cruz due to mud on the road making the climb too slippery. Race organisers had decided to take the general classification times at 2050 metres from the finish line to avoid the main peloton racing on the precarious slopes. 

In some ways, this decision was understandable. The organisers of the Vuelta a España have come under fire for rider safety concerns multiple times in this race already and it's positive to see them pre-empting any risks. However, the logic behind their choice is somewhat questionable. Why would they deem the finish too dangerous for the GC contenders to race (who would certainly have been split into small groups when they crossed the line), but not the breakaway, who rode all the way to the finish? The organisers also were aware of the mud hours before the arrival of the peloton, yet they had no way to clean or clear the roads? Of course, riding the roads could give a different picture, but TV coverage a appeared to show the roads looking relatively clear of mud, too – it looked certainly no more dangerous than a wet climb in Strade Bianche or the gravel climb of Le Super Planche des Belles Filles which is regularly used in the Tour de France.

With the finish for the general classification riders being taken at just over two kilometres of the stage remaining, we were left with confusion and disappointment. With both Roglič and Evenepoel attacking on the earlier slopes of the climb, it was shaping up to be an exciting GC battle, yet it was cut short when the riders ordinarily should have had at least five minutes more of climbing ahead of them. Trying to make sense of what was happening on the road was head-scratching for even the most seasoned of cycling fans; spare a thought for those who are tuning into the Vuelta for the first time this year. While Lennard Kämna stormed to a well-deserved stage victory, the GC favourites cruised in behind him like they were on a casual social ride. When they got to the top, they had to turn around and ride straight back down the slippery climb, anyway.

There are plenty of things that have gone wrong in the first week of this Vuelta a España that have been out of the control of the race organisers. Nothing can be done about the weather, for example. However, there have also been crucial things that needed to be done much better, for the sake of both rider safety and the enjoyment of fans. To organise a three-week Grand Tour is a monumental feat, but the Tour de France sets a standard that other races should follow. Rider safety should always be the top priority, but decisions about stage finishes should be made long before the peloton is just moments away from reaching them. The spectacle of the peloton riding to the top of Alto Caravaca da la Cruz was almost farcical, and it’s fair to expect better.

As the race rolls into the first rest day, here’s hoping for a drama-free final two weeks of racing, where we can simply enjoy the best bike riders in the world battle it out to win the Vuelta a España – that’s what everyone is here for, after all.

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