We’ve seen it time and time again: the scrapping for seconds in the first week of a Grand Tour when three weeks later, the race ends up being won by minutes, anyway. The Tour de France at the start of this year is the most recent example: Tadej Pogačar repeatedly sprinted to bonus steal seconds over Jonas Vingegaard in the early stages of the race, but eventually ended up losing by over seven minutes. It’s a tactic that riders need to decide on when approaching a Grand Tour: do they want to deal one, knockout blow, or try to defeat their opponent with numerous left and right jabs?
Recent history tells us that the former option is usually the most successful. It’s the approach that has been favoured by Tour de France winning team Jumbo-Visma over the last two seasons. They wait and wait until the race gets to the toughest terrain before launching attacks that really make the difference. Jumbo-Visma are acutely aware of the attritional nature of three-week stage races and seem to be adept at using their energy wisely. There will be no extra watts used, no additional pedal revolutions turned, unless it is absolutely, fundamentally necessary – and part of the team plan.
In this year’s Vuelta a España, the pattern has, so far, somewhat mirrored what was seen when Vingegaard was racing Pogačar at the Tour. This time, however, it isn’t the UAE Team Emirates rider chomping at the bit to steal seconds where he can against the team in yellow and black, but Remco Evenepoel. The Soudal-Quick-Step rider is trying valiantly to defend his Vuelta title against Jumbo’s dual-pronged approach with both Vingegaard and Primož Roglič, so much so that it raises questions about whether Evenepoel will suffer for the efforts he is making now later on in the race.
During stage five to Burriana, the Belgian rider outsprinted Kaden Groves to take six seconds at the intermediate point just outside the 10 kilometre to go mark, doing so without any proper lead out train and inevitably using some energy in the process. Jumbo-Visma, despite having two favourites to win the Vuelta overall, were nowhere to be seen. Similarly, Evenepoel spent plenty of pennies when he sprinted to the stage win on the first summit finish of the race in Arinsal a few days ago. Vingegaard’s face in the background as Evenepoel celebrated his win was almost a mirror image of when the Dane finished behind Pogačar on stage six of the Tour de France earlier this year. Just keep sprinting, Vingegaard seems to be thinking, there’s a long way to go in this race yet.
It’s true that the hardest is certainly still yet to come in the Vuelta a España, especially for Evenepoel. Despite winning the race last year, the Quick-Step rider did show weaknesses in the high mountain top finishes in the second half of the race. He cracked and was dropped by both Roglič and Enric Mas on the Sierra de la Pandera climb at the end of stage 14, then lost more time to them both the next day on the especial category climb to Sierra Nevada. In this year’s race, the climbs at around the same point are harder — stage 13 finishes atop the mythical Col du Tourmalet, for example and the Alto de l'Angliru awaits on stage 17.
Jumbo-Visma undoubtedly have plenty planned for the toughest mountains in the race and will aim to put Evenepoel under pressure there – the Belgian will need all his resources to withstand the heat. It seemed, at the start of the Vuelta, that Evenepoel realised this. He spoke candidly about wanting his team to fly under the radar and leave things up to Jumbo-Visma to make the race, but now things have begun, it seems he is abandoning that tactic altogether. Rather than trying to lose the red jersey in order to take the pressure of him and his team – like he originally said he would if he wore it in the first week ahead of the race – Evenepoel is sprinting for seconds to keep it. It seems that he can’t really help himself; Remco does Remco things.
Of course, no one knows how the race will eventually pan out – if Evenepoel wins by six seconds I’ll be trying to erase this article from existence on the internet – but Soudal-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma’s tactics are already sharply contrasting and we’re only five stages in. It could be that Evenepoel getting a buffer ahead of Vingegaard and Roglič so early on pays dividends later in the race, and perhaps the Belgian really is feeling strong enough to do this. He hasn’t done any full Grand Tours this season so far unlike Vingegaard and Roglič, for example, so maybe he is just fresher than the Jumbo duo.
If he isn’t, however, these efforts so early in the race could have an impact as the roads begin to kick upwards later in the race. Meagre seconds can very quickly turn into multiple minutes in the mountains – we’ve seen that plenty of times before. Evenepoel should not be underestimated, but neither should those he has to beat if he wants to wear red all the way to Madrid.