It was only a week ago that the Vuelta a España was asking how many stages Kaden Groves, the outstanding sprinter in this year’s race, would win. He had just secured back-to-back victories, and with Filippo Ganna - yes, the time trialist - being his closest competitor on stage five, it was natural to presume that Groves was going to take a clean sweep of the expected six sprint days.
Not so. Stage seven he was usurped by the surprising brilliance of Geoffrey Soupe, and after waiting almost a week for another go, Groves was unable to make it a hat-trick of victories on stage 12 in Zaragoza, with Juan Sebastián Molano of UAE Team Emirates coming from deep to take his second career win at the Vuelta.
Groves was expectedly furious. While Molano is sharing team leadership with three other riders - Marc Soler, Juan Ayuso and João Almeida - Groves has an entire team built around his ambitions. With three kilometres to go on the 12th stage, five Alpecin riders amassed at the head of race, and as they went under the flamme rouge, Groves had two teammates towing him towards the line.
Just as Groves was about to jump out of the wheel, Molano and his leadout man, Rui Oliveira, emerged from the right to power ahead with a wicked turn of pace. Groves responded quickly, but a dropped chain stalled his momentum, and by the time he could click back into gear, the Colombian was too far ahead to be overtaken.
It was joy for Molano, but deep frustration for Groves. Against such a poor sprinting field, 24-year-old Groves is on a mission to mark himself out as the best-ranked B-class sprinter, a fast man who can win on the biggest of stages, and not be overawed by the weight and expectation that comes with being the man to beat and leading the points classification.
He knows that by winning multiple times at the Vuelta he can exert some pressure on his teammate Jasper Philipsen and force himself into consideration to be selected for next year’s Tour de France, however unlikely that may be given the Belgian’s dominance this July.
It’s why Groves was visibly angry after losing out to Molano, and it was a clear sign that he possesses the willingness to win, and the drive to succeed, that the sport’s fastest men all have in their arsenal.
Groves will get more chances, but not until stages 19 and 21. Should he make it over the mountains in between - and there’s no reason why he won’t for he’s already demonstrated multiple times that he’s adept at surviving savage climbing days - you get the impression that the Australian won’t let another win slip through his fingers. If he does, though, the Oliveira slingshot is waiting to propel Molano towards another victory.