Red ambush: where can the GC contenders get the better of Evenepoel in the Vuelta a España final week?

Received wisdom dictates that it’s the third week of a Grand Tour that matters most. The first two weeks set the stage for the final battle, when a front-runner is established and the other contenders emerge, while either bad fortune or bad form rules out others pre-race favourites. But it’s during those final few days that the race is really won or lost, being where the hardest stages are held, the biggest mountains climbed, and when the fatigue of this distinctively long form of bike racing really begins to take effect.

So should Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) be worried about his grasp on the red jersey as he enters the final week of the Vuelta a España? Even the most experienced of Grand Tour veterans come undone at this hurdle, so a rider as inexperienced as him — who has never before stuck around for a Grand Tour final week, let alone defended an overall lead during one — feels especially vulnerable.

Well, yes and no. It’s true that when the unique challenges of a Grand Tour are talked about, it’s the final week that’s being referred to, and that Evenepoel hasn’t therefore yet answered some of the biggest question marks hanging over him prior to the race regarding whether he can go the full distance. The fact that he already appeared to be tiring in relation to his main rivals during the end of the second week, losing 1-07 to Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and 1-02 to Enric Mas (Movistar) respectively during the weekend in the Andalusian mountains, suggests it’s only logical to assume that he’d continue to do so this upcoming week. The lead of 1-34 he holds over Roglič could hardly be described as insurmountable, while the presence of Mas in third at 2-01 means he can’t afford to just focus on defending against the Slovenian.

Read more: Older, wiser: A new Remco Evenepoel at the 2022 Vuelta a España

But there is one factor that should give Evenepoel confidence: the terrain. Unlike most Grand Tours, where the toughest and most decisive stages are left until last, most of the most difficult mountains have already been conquered.

Sunday’s finish at Sierra Nevada rose up to an altitude of over 2500m, lasted a whole 22.3km, and averaged almost 8% over its whole duration. By contrast, the first uphill finish of the final week on Wednesday at Monasterio de Tentudía is, at 10.3km, less than half the length, and averages a much shallower 5% — enough to only be classified as a category two climb. Thursday’s category one finish up Alto de Piornal is certainly harder, lasting three kilometres with a similar gradient, but it too pales in comparison to Sierra Nevada. Considering that Evenepoel limited his losses to just 36 seconds to Mas on that climb, and a mere 15 seconds to Roglič, he should be confident of defending red on these climbs.

And the idea that Evenepoel will continue to weaken during the final week may also be mistaken. Many interpreted his troubles on La Pandera as being not as a sign of tiring, but of the after-effects of the crash he suffered a couple of days earlier, and Evenepoel himself endorsed this reason while talking to the media during the rest day; and added, buoyantly, that he now feels himself to be totally recovered. The fact he looked so much better on Sierra Nevada the day after La Pandera suggests he’s being truthful.

If Evenepoel is going to lose the red jersey, it’s likely that it will be Saturday’s penultimate stage in the Sierras of Madrid that will be his Waterloo. Many of the five peaks on the menu that day have a history of turning Vueltas on their head, most recently in 2015, when the relentless climbing caused Tom Dumoulin to run out of steam, losing over four minutes when on the brink of winning the race to fall from first on GC to sixth.

What separates this stage from all the others is not the severity of the final climb (10.3km long and averaging 6.9%, the Puerto de Cotos is also not as hard as last weekend’s), but rather the amount of climbing spread throughout the day. There are five in total, three of them classified as category one, and four of them crammed into the final 100km, with barely any respite in between them. Even if Evenepoel doesn’t lose a single extra second in the stages that precede it, there’s enough here for him to lose his whole advantage in just one day.

But can Roglič and Mas really afford to wait this long to make their move on attacking for the race victory? While it’s true that stage 20 does look hugely hazardous for Evenepoel, similar things were said about the Sierra Nevada stage, where many predicted that the high altitude would be Evenepoel’s undoing, yet he survived the stage relatively unscathed. It could be argued that Roglič in particular was guilty of leaving it too late on Sierra Nevada, waiting until the final few kilometres of the climb to attack; having gained less than half of the time he needed to pull back following the stage 11 time trial, he’ll need to make inroads at a faster rate in the final week if he’s to defend his title.

Consequently, we may be treated to some attempted ambushes during less likely terrain this week. Given the relative modesty of the final climb on stage 17, an earlier attack on the undulating roads that precede it might prove to be more effective, while the fact the riders will climb Alto de Piornal twice the following day opens up the chance of attacks the first time up. The parcours on stage 19, with two ascents of the category two Puerto del Piélago, is practically begging for a long-range move.

These might also be the stages where team strength really comes into play, and possible convenient inter-team alliances formed between riders. While Ilan Van Wilder and Fausto Masnada have helped soften the blow of Julian Alaphilippe’s abandonment, and have been able to offer Evenepoel better assistance than other teams have managed to give their GC leaders, the team’s diminished numbers might really start to be exposed if they’re tasked with marking and chasing down attacks made much earlier.

And that’s exactly what could happen, not just from Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma and Mas’ Movistar, but from all the other riders still with something to ride for on GC. At 4-49 and 5-16 respectively, overall victory might be beyond the young Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) and Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers), but they’re still fighting to podium places, and will therefore have an incentive to ride should they find themselves up the road with Roglič and/or Mas and Evenepoel dropped behind. The way a resurgent Miguel Ángel López (Astana-Premier Tech) was willing to assist Mas on Sierra Nevada to enhance his own chances of a podium finish and/or stage win could be a sign of things to come this week.

Evenepoel has ridden a great race, his form is holding up, and he’s defied many sceptics already. But he’s about to be tested in a way he has never yet been in his career.