A week ago there was immense anticipation heading into the second half of the Vuelta a España. The race was delicately poised, there were up to 15 riders who could all consider themselves still in the fight to win the race, and there was the tantalising prospect of how Remco Evenepoel would take on two sets of tridents.
The Pyrenean triple header promised to be a blockbuster that would whittle down the contenders, but in the end only the first act proved decisive, Evenepoel’s defeat well before the race even reached the Tourmalet flipping the dynamics of the race on its head.
Despite the accumulated total of more than 7,000m of climbing in stages 14 and 15, the GC picture has remained unmoved since Evenepoel’s dark day; on Sunday, after a frantic opening 60km where the peloton toyed with each other on Movistar’s backyard, Rui Costa, Intermarché-Circus-Wanty’s soon-to-be 37-year-old, claimed his first Grand Tour victory since 2013. Behind, the GC cohort arrived as one, the race for red on pause as the final four battles loom large.
At present, it looks as if Jumbo-Visma are going to steamroll towards a truly unprecedented 1-2-3 and wrap up a Grand Tour grand slam. Sepp Kuss, who appears to be thriving in his unexpected role as team and race leader, has a 1:37 lead over Primož Roglič; Jonas Vingegaard is 1:44 behind.
It’s tempting to write that such dominance and superiority has taken the sting out of the Vuelta, but lurking behind are four Spaniards who have promised an alliance. Enric Mas, 3:06 behind in fifth and looking for his fourth Vuelta podium, told AS. “[Juan] Ayuso [in fourth, 2-37 back] is my rival but can also be my ally. [Mikel] Landa, Ayuso, [Marc] Soler, maybe we have to collaborate and we can make a difference to change this race.”
Movistar’s Mas has rarely displayed panache - it’s precisely the reason why he is still to convince his home support - but, as we saw on stage 13, there’s still life in Landismo, and Ayuso has already gone on the attack. His fellow 20-year-old, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Cian Uijtdebroeks who is ninth 5:30 back, seems destined to at least try something audacious, too; his teammate Aleksandr Vlasov is 28 seconds better off and the pair will be concocting a plan on the second rest day as to how and where they can try get back into the picture.
There are certainly opportunities. Stage 16’s shootout finish into the tiny Cantabrian village of Bejes has sustained and repeated ramps of around 15%. The day after it’s the fearsome Angliru where the story might not be which of the six pretenders will stay the course with Jumbo’s devastating trio, but if the Dutch threesome remains intact, united and complete. The Angliru is possibly the hardest test in cycling, and it’s not inconceivable that one or more of the three will be beaten by the terrible gradients. It will also firmly set in stone the team hierarchy going into the final four days, which includes an immensely difficult stage 18, and a penultimate stage in the mountains north of Madrid that demands full alertness.
Jumbo undoubtedly sit in the most blessed situation, and while a podium hat-trick is now a dream being pursued, it is sacrificial if the Spanish allies, backed by Bora’s pairing, mount a raid to deny them red. This Vuelta a España is hurtling towards an historic denouement, but just because Evenepoel is now chasing the lesser prizes of stages and the mountain jersey, the race for the maillot rojo is not dead yet. Far from it, in fact.