Spare a thought for every team competing at this Vuelta a España that isn’t Jumbo-Visma. We knew going into the race, when they announced a line-up featuring GC stars Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič plus a stack load of many of their top super-domestiques, that they’d be difficult for anyone to compete with, but few expected them to start the final week occupying all three of the podium spots.
Not content with just dominating the general classification, they’re also greedily going after stage wins, too. Between them, Sepp Kuss, Roglič and Vingegaard have now registered four stages for the team following the latter’s success today, accounting for exactly a quarter of all the stages on offer so far. Today had looked like more of a breakaway stage rather than one for the GC riders, and therefore a chance for other teams to pursue some success while Jumbo-Visma took it easy riding tempo at the front of the peloton. Instead — and quite probably fuelled by the frightening news about their rider Nathan Van Hooydonck, who was today hospitalised after a serious road accident — they rode hard to ensure the breakaway was caught, then duly swamped the other teams with their unparalleled climbing strength on the finishing climb, Vingegaard taking the victory with an attack 4km from the finish. It was an intimidating demonstration of how the team is powerful enough to dictate exactly how they want a stage to play out, and every other team is at their mercy.
This dominance has left their rival GC teams (if they can still be considered ‘rivals’, considering the gulf between them) at a loss as to how to try and combat them. That was evident today on the climb to Bejes, when they had neither the strength nor the tactical nous to answer Vingegaard’s attack. The Dane was unmarked when he flew up the road, and only domestique climbers like Finn Fisher-Black and Bahrain-Victorious’ Wout Poels tried, and failed, to follow him. Their team leaders instead remained back in the group of favourites with Kuss and Roglič, where there was no organised chase, allowing Vingegaard to gain over a minute over all of them in just 4km on what was a relatively modest category two climb. Consequently, the other teams have now drifted further away even from a spot on the GC podium, let alone the red jersey.
The team best-equipped to challenge Jumbo-Visma, but who had no solution to Vingegaard’s attack today, is UAE Team Emirates. They’ve been the only line-up to match Jumbo-Visma for numbers throughout the race, and although their position has weakened since Marc Soler lost time and João Almeida fell sick, they still have three riders in the top ten. They would have been the most obvious team to have led the chase of Vingegaard after he attacked, but instead relied upon Finn Fisher-Black to try and catch him on his own. It was a strange ploy considering the young New Zealander’s lack of pedigree as a climber, and unsurprisingly he fell well short of catching Vingegaard, settling for second place on the stage instead. Why didn’t one of Soler, Almeida or Juan Ayuso chase after him instead, given that they would have stood a better chance? And why did the team allow Vingegaard to gain so much time uncontested, considering the time he gained now puts a podium finish further out of reach for Ayuso (who is fourth on GC, 1:00 down on Roglič and now 2:04 behind Vingegaard). Theirs were hard to discern tactics, and perhaps a sign that the team is simply running out of ideas and overwhelmed by Jumbo-Visma’s strength.
If Ayuso does ultimately miss out on a podium finish at the expense of the three Jumbo-Visma riders, UAE Team Emirates at least have Juan Sebastian Molano’s victory from stage twelve’s bunch sprint to take home with them. The same can’t be said for other GC contending teams Movistar and Bahrain-Victorious. The latter have enjoyed a decent race, with GC leader Mikel Landa returning to form to get into seventh overall, but a podium finish still seems like a long shot. A stage win is more plausible, and they went for one today through Wout Poels, who deployed the same approach as Finn Fisher-Black by trying, and failing, to chase Vingegaard down on the final climb. Like UAE Team Emirates, they too will need to smarten up if they are to achieve more than just a top 10 for Landa.
As for Movistar, riding on home roads as Spain’s only representative team in the WorldTour, the pressure to get something from this Vuelta is especially intense. Unlike UAE Team Emirates and Bahrain-Victorious, they only had one representative in the chasing group behind Vingegaard, Enric Mas, and therefore could not have tried to chase him down even if they wanted to. In fifth overall, Mas himself is caught between a rock and a hard place as the final few days approach: should he ride defensively and hope one of the riders ahead of him cracks, so that he can make up the minute and a half he needs to move onto the podium? Or should he ride more adventurously and gamble his current spot on GC on going for a stage win? The success of Movistar’s Vuelta probably depends on him getting this approach right.
While these teams have at least been somewhere in the GC mix, Ineos Grenadiers have endured a torrid time on all fronts at the Vuelta, and their increasing desperation was painfully apparent early in today’s stage. After failing to place a rider in the initial break at the start of the day, the team took to the front and chased it down frantically. It was the kind of approach you’d usually associate with small wildcard teams, instructed to work by their sports directors for missing a break, and not from the once all-conquering, monolithic Ineos Grenadiers. Worse still, once they did eventually bring that breakaway group back about 80km from the finish, they failed to place a rider in the next group that successfully formed, meaning all that hard, maybe even degrading, work was for nothing. As evidence for how comprehensively they have been superseded by Jumbo-Visma as the best team in the world, you could hardly find a more stark demonstration than today’s stage.