On a day as severely affected by bad weather as this opening team time trial stage of the Vuelta a España was, any GC contenders who lost more time than they’d hoped can at least comfort themselves with the assurance it could have been much worse.
The wet conditions made what would normally have been a straightforward, albeit technical, team time trial course into a potential death trap. Riders were seen sliding out on corners at an alarming rate, and the hoped-for cohesion of team line-ups were obliterated as riders had to worry more about staying upright than staying in formation.
Consequently, there were some surprising results. Team DSM-Firmenich were the shock winners, meaning their young rider Lorenzo Milesi is the first red jersey wearer of the race. Whereas their success was surely at least partly a result of being one of the first teams to set off, and therefore avoid the worsening conditions later in the day after the rain had fallen some more, it was less clear why the elite line-ups of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates finished as far down as they did in 11th and 14th respectively, behind even a modest Astana Qazaqstan that has no ambitious on GC, despite setting off immediately after them.
It later transpired that some incidents occurred that were not initially caught by the television cameras. Most significantly, Jumbo-Visma were delayed when Jonas Vingegaard was dramatically held-up by a mechanical. As the team’s co-leader along with Primož Roglič, the whole team had to wait up for him, including Roglič, meaning the Slovenian too lost more time than he otherwise would have done. It was unfortunate, for sure (what were the chances of getting a puncture in such a short route?), but does also demonstrate the disadvantage of riding a Grand Tour with more than one leader for the GC. Still, both rider losses were limited to 32 seconds: again, it could have been so much worse.
One of UAE Team Emirates’ co-leaders was also held up by an issue that we only heard confirmed after the stage had finished. It turned out that João Almeida had a mechanical late on, explaining why their other riders looked so disorganised as they finished their ride. Fortunately for them, the organisers decided to give Almeida the same time as Juan Ayuso and his other teammates due to it being a mechanical issue occurring within the final kilometre, but the disruption contributed to them finishing a whole 37 seconds slower than Team DSM-Firmenich.
The surprising discrepancies between the teams can’t only be explained by the mechanical incidents, however. In an incensed post-stage interview, during which he railed at how the riders were expected race in such dangerous conditions (relating to both the rain and the dark), Remco Evenepoel suggested that some of the teams “went super-slow because they couldn’t see anything or race at 100 percent.” He and every GC contender were faced with the tricky calculation of how much to balance not losing to much time by being risk-averse, and not suffering a disaster by crashing; judging from how unrelaxed he looked at the finish in that interview, and the fact his Soudal-Quick-Step team was actually one of the quickest on the day in fourth-place at six seconds, indicates that his team was willing to take more risks than others.
If this stage was more about which GC team was most willing to take risks rather than which had the strongest riders, then clearly Movistar were the most bold. Despite being the penultimate team to finish in the worst of the rain and the dark, the Spanish team finished second place, on the same time as DSM-Firmenich. That puts their leader Enric Mas up on all of his main GC rivals already (aside from DSM’s Romain Bardet, if he can still be considered a top contender), and over half a minute ahead of Vingegaard, Roglič, Ayuso and Almeida. Even if he did have to take risks to earn that time, it could yet prove to be decisive by the end of the Vuelta.
Ineos Grenadiers will rue the loss of key domestique Laurens De Plus (Getty Images)
Whereas Vingegaard and Almeida were held up but unhurt by their misfortune, Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-Alula) was the one GC contender to go down in a crash. Fifty-one seconds was his Jayo-Alula’s loss to Team DSM-Firmenich after they were held up by that crash (plus another early no dramatically involving multiple of their riders), but would pale in comparison to the damage incurred to his chances by an injury from the crash. Thankfully he was able to remount immediately and looked unhurt, but we won’t know for sure if there are after-effects until later.
For all the carnage out there, none of the GC teams suffered losses in excess of one minute. But there was one team who suffered a setback likely to be more significant than any of these time gaps — Ineos Grenadiers, whose Laurens De Plus crashed out of the time trial and has abandoned. The Belgian had been selected as one of leader Geraint Thomas’ two main super-domestiques for the mountains along with Thymen Arensman, retaking the role both riders adopted at the Giro d’Italia. At that race, he played a very important role in defending the pink jersey for the Welshman and ensuring he finished second overall, while also managing a tenth-place on GC himself. Without him, Thomas suddenly looks like he might be much more vulnerable in the mountains, especially if Egan Bernal is still well short of his best form.
De Plus’ crash came earlier in the course than most, and didn’t therefore hold up Ineos so much, helping them limit their losses to 20 seconds, which was better than how Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates fared. But it may turn out that his abandonment is the most significant thing to have happened today, and have more of an impact on the race than any of the relatively minor time losses incurred.
Cover photo by Luis Angel Gomez/Unipublic