Plenty to play for but Evenepoel in control as Vuelta a España enters final explosive mountain stages

As the days left to complete the Vuelta a España have counted down, so have the number of realistic potential winners. With four days to go, only Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Enric Mas (Movistar) remained in contention. Now, we’re down to just two: two days left until the finale in Madrid, and two contenders in the aftermath of Roglič crashing out.

Roglič’s crash on the finishing straight in Tomares on Tuesday was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole race. Just moments earlier he appeared to be turning the race on its head, storming away from the peloton on a climb that most dismissed as not being difficult enough to cause gaps between the GC favourites, while Evenepoel languished delayed by a mechanical. 

Sure, the Slovenian’s gains would have been limited to just eight seconds once the 3km rule had been applied for Evenepoel’s puncture. But the strength Roglič showed in that attack indicated that he had fully recovered from his Tour de France injuries after making what was, by his very high standards, a relatively slow start to the Vuelta, and was entering the final phase of the race in flying form. Though we’ve seen Roglič ride many Grand Tour final weeks over the years, usually he’s done so as the rider at the top of the GC defending his lead rather than needing to topple a rider ahead of him, and the signs were that he was going to throw everything at Evenepoel. That his crash robbed us of the novel spectacle of watching him ride this way was of great detriment to the race.

Read more: Vuelta a España 2022 stage 19 preview - short and punchy

Roglič’s withdrawal has also altered the entire dynamic of the race, and the nature of the task Evenepoel is faced with in order to defend the red jersey. Even before his puncture on Tuesday he was looking vulnerable, and had seen his lead slashed from 2-41 to 1-34 over the weekend prior to the rest day. And it wasn’t just Roglič that Evenepoel had to worry about, but Mas too, who was also becoming much too close to him for comfort at 2-01.

That Evenepoel only has to worry about one rival rather than two during this final week might just be what ensures he wins this Vuelta a España. With both Roglič and Mas both attacking him, it’s easy to see him cracking under the demands of having to mark both of them, especially considering his lack of teammates to help assist him in the mountains. But with Mas as his only rival, his tactics have been greatly simplified — stick like glue to Mas’ wheel, and follow his every move.

The benefits of this simplified state of play were clear during the uphill finishes of stage 17 at Monasterio de Tentudía on Wednesday, and in particular at stage 18’s Alto de Piornal on Thursday. Mas attacked on both climbs, multiple times on the latter, but each time Evenepoel was able to follow. And when a flurry of other attacks came from other riders on Alto de Piornal, Evenepoel had no need to follow any of them, allowing him to preserve all his energy and recover in time to mark Mas’ next move. 

The Belgian even had the legs to make a few of his own attacks, and got the better of his rival in the sprint to the line at the top to claim a stage victory — and, perhaps more importantly, another crucial few bonus seconds to extend his lead on the GC to 2-07. 

Nevertheless, the race isn’t over yet, and an exciting final two stages are in store prior to the Madrid finish as Mas continues to try and take the red jersey. Though he was unable to shed Evenepoel on either climb, and wound-up losing time rather than gaining any, there were some encouraging signs for the Spaniard. During his final acceleration on the Alto de Piornal, where he put in one last big, sustained effort to drop him, Evenepoel really appeared to be on the ropes, and some daylight briefly opened up between their two wheels. 

Even the fact that Evenepoel felt the need to make his own attacks on the climb could be construed as a positive for Mas. Evenepoel was unable to drop Mas any more than Mas was able to drop Evenepoel, and it was notable that the Belgian put in his efforts on the shallower gradients of the constantly fluctuating climb. Might his attacks not have been a sign of strength, but rather a psychological ploy to try and discourage Mas from continuing to attack on the steeper slopes, where he was struggling? Evenepoel’s gurning expressions on these ramps (which notably reverted to a poker face when Mas turned to look at him) suggests that might have been the case.

Encouragingly for Mas, there are plenty more steep ramps during stage 20’s climbing of the kind where he had the red jersey under pressure. Evenepoel might have been just about able to hold on Alto de Piornal, but how fresh will his legs be at the end of a day featuring five climbs? If Mas can this time succeed in getting a gap on the slower slopes of the climactic Puerto de Cotos, or maybe even the similarly difficult Puerto de la Morcuera that precedes it, then the deficit of 2-07 still looks attainable. Taking into account his comments on taking every opportunity he can to gain time, perhaps even an ambitious attack on the only moderately difficult but short and intense stage nineteen is on the cards. The 42km downhill from the top of the category two Puerto del Piélago isn’t ideal, but Mas may feel he needs to try everything. 

With Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan) still within 32 seconds and 1-35 respectively of deposing Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) from the final podium place, and even the prospect of some juicy intra-team rivalry should Ayuso’s teammate João Almeida believe that he has the legs to gain the two minutes he needs to place third overall, there’s plenty to play for at the Vuelta a España. There might only be two days left of GC racing, but they could be the most dramatic and significant of the whole race. 

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