Strength-in-depth: Which team looked the strongest in the first mountain stage of the Vuelta a España?

Soudal–Quick-Step will not just have Jumbo-Visma to worry about in the upcoming mountain stages

The wounds Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) inflicted after crashing after the finish line of today’s stage in Andorra might only be superficial, but the image of the bloodied Belgian do serve to function as a metaphor as to how his chances of defending his Vuelta a España title aren’t quite as positive as the result of him winning the stage would alone suggest. Evenepoel out-sprinted the other GC favourites by unleashing the explosive uphill punch he has developed this season, and as a result, not only wins the stage but also takes the overall lead. But immediately behind him, lurking ominously, were two riders for Jumbo-Visma (Jonas Vingegaard in second, Primož Roglič in fourth) and two riders from UAE Team Emirates (Juan Ayuso in third, Marc Soler in fifth). Evenepoel might already be back wearing the red jersey he ended last year’s race in, but there could be trouble ahead as he’s sure to come under much pressure from these two teams trying to take it from him.

The result reinforced what many believed going into the Vuelta: that Soudal–Quick-Step are not as strong in the mountains as their rival teams. Though Evenepoel was accompanied for much of the Alto de Arinsal by teammates Jan Hirt and Louis Vervaeke, once the attacks were made, and the action kicked off, he was left isolated. Evenepoel himself seems anxious about the prospect of his team having to defend the red jersey, commenting during the post-race interview about how he 'unfortunately' now has the overall lead in what sounded like he was only half-joking. Though the team’s presence at the front of the peloton for much of the day could be interpreted as a sign of confidence in their ability to control the race, if we take Evenepoel’s comments before the stage that he wanted a breakaway at face value, it could equally have been that they only chased due to the presence of potential GC threats Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) and Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) – in which case they made a mistake by allowing two such dangerous riders to escape into the day’s break in the first place.

In between Evenepoel in first place and the next best Soudal–Quick-Step rider (Jan Hirt) in sixteenth at 21 seconds were no less than four riders each from Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates. The former looked just about as strong as expected, with co-leaders Vingegaard and Roglič both contesting for the stage win in the sprint and domestiques Wilco Kelderman and Sepp Kuss finishing in the select eleven-man front group that finished together at the same time. In one particularly striking demonstration of their power in the mountains, when Juan Ayuso became the first GC rider to attack from the peloton on the final climb, he was trailed by a line of yellow behind him, as Kuss, Vingegaard and Roglič were all the first to latch onto his wheel. It was an intimidating demonstration of what other teams are up against should they try to attack the Dutch squad.

Read more: Frowning Remco Evenepoel has a reason to smile

Yet for all Jumbo-Visma’s expected numerical superiority, it was actually UAE Team Emirates who took on the race today and looked just about as strong as them. They were the team to take the initiative on the Arinsal climb, as Jay Vine was put to work to set the pace in the peloton and reduce it to just a handful of riders. Then, when he finished his turn, teammate Ayuso was the first rider to attack from the group, and when he was brought back, Marc Soler later made an attempt to go clear. Neither succeeded in going clear for the stage win, but both riders were present in the front group at the finish along with João Almeida, while Vine managed to arrive just 10 seconds later despite the work he’d put in earlier. It seems Evenepoel may have to be just as worried about UAE Team Emirates as he is about Jumbo-Visma.

One team that doesn’t look set to mount much of a GC challenge is Ineos Grenadiers. Their GC leader, Geraint Thomas, does not seem to have the same form as he did at the Giro d'Italia and lost 47 seconds today after finishing in 23rd place. With one of his potential deputies, Laurens De Plus, abandoning after stage one, that leaves Thymen Arensman as their best-place rider, and even he was a little off the pace, arriving at the line in fifteenth, 21 seconds down on the leaders.

While Thomas might yet grow into the race, and Arensman has already proven himself as a capable GC contender with a couple of top-six finishes already to his name, there are fewer reasons for Bahrain-Victorious to remain optimistic about their GC hopes. Mikel Landa’s form was an unknown coming into the Vuelta, having not raced since his subdued showing at the Tour de France, but now appears to still be far from his best, as he conceded 1:29 on the final climb. Damiano Caruso is their other proven GC contender, but he ultimately suffered from the gamble of getting into the day’s break, slipping back after being caught to lose 1:58. Now, Santiago Buitrago is their best-place rider, having limited his losses to 21 seconds, and might have an opportunity to test his young legs as the team’s leading GC candidate.

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Finally, there is one team shaping up to be a dark horse at this Vuelta: Bora-Hansgrohe. Despite not showing their faces much at the front of the peloton, they quietly placed both Aleksandr Vlasov and Cian Uijtdebroeks in the top eleven, making them the third-best represented team after Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates in the lead group. And even Lennard Kämna came home just 37 seconds behind this group, despite all his efforts in the breakaway, suggesting he has arrived at this race in great form, too. With Vlasov offering the experience of someone who twice made the top five of a Grand Tour, Uijtdebroeks the raw talent of a 20-year-old that nobody knows the ceiling of, and Lennard Kämna as a wildcard option, Bora-Hansgrohe might just be the surprise package of the race, and provide Remco Evenepoel and Soudal–Quick-Step with yet more problems to worry about.

*Cover image by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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