La Vuelta 2020 in words and pictures
The final WorldTour race of the year dressed for the occasion in resplendent autumnal tones, as Roglič rightfully returned to Madrid in red
Autumn in Spain is something quite special. While it may have been born out by necessity rather than desire, who knows when we'll again be able to enjoy a Vuelta painted in a palette of crisp golds, browns and reds?
With the three Dutch stages that were originally due to open the race removed from the route for obvious reasons, as well as being pushed back in the calendar, this year's edition was reduced to eighteen days of racing.
Excursions into Portugal and France - planned for stages fifteen and six respectively - couldn't happen either. That meant the entirety of the race would be concentrated in the north of Spain, never venturing further south than the stage 17 summit finish at Alto de la Covatilla in Salamanca, before finishing in Madrid on stage 18.In many ways a very different Vuelta a Espana to the one we normally get, there was much that was the same as well. While the Tour and the Giro swapped places in the running order - though not the hierarchy - the Vuelta a España 2021 held onto its spot as the last chance saloon. Not for those riders and teams for whom the Italian Grand Tour didn't go as planned, due to the races overlapping, but certainly for the ones whose Tour de France was less lucrative than they'd have liked.
Which really means Primož Roglič. Jumbo Visma's leader may or may not have had something to prove to himself - Liège-Bastogne-Liège was arguably his personal ride of redemption - but after *that* finish on La Planche Des Belle Filles, he was nonetheless the rider who all eyes, and most of the pressure, would be on.
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And from the very opening stage he looked like would live up to it. At Arrate Roglič claimed the win, ten bonus seconds, and an additional one over Richard Carapaz, who came in second, for good measure. Most had predicted that Carapaz would be the Slovenian's greatest threat to becoming the first rider to retain the title since 2005, and so it appeared to be borne out on day 1. Some even speculated - because some do like to speculate - that Roglič might be able to wear the maillot rojo all the way to Madrid.
Although all seventeen stages was a stretch, he did have it on his shoulders for twelve of them. Stage 6's summit finish to Aramón Formigal took place in dismal conditions that even Roglič's formidable fighting force of team-mates could not protect him from. Carapaz, Hugh Carthy and Dan Martin all managed to with the Ecuadorian taking the race lead by a not insignificant 30 seconds, as Roglič slipped down to fourth.
He was able to get 13 of those back - as well as leapfrog Martin and Carthy in the standings - two days later at Alto de Moncalvillo. The green and red matched each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke until, at around 750 metres to the line, Roglič stole a march on Carapaz, to take the stage, 13 seconds and what would prove to be a valuable four more bonus seconds of advantage.
The race lead he would reclaim two days later in controversial fashion in Suances. With the peloton apparently coming in together, Roglič put down the power on the run-in to not only pick the pockets of those freelancers with an eye on the stage win, but create a measurable gap on the other GC contenders. That meant he and Carapaz were level on time with Roglič in the red jersey and two summit finishes left to close out the second week.
The latter of these, the Alto de l'Angliru, was the one that would matter. The likelihood of all four GC contenders - or five, if you included Enric Mas - staying together on the Angliru's imposing slopes were slim. Of the top two, the gradients definitely favoured the more diminutive South American, but how much time, if any, could he take on his European rival?
Just ten seconds, as it turned out. Enough to put Carapaz in rojo but, with a time trial to come, probably not as much as he'd have liked.
Roglič duly retook the jersey on the Mirador de Ézaro but he would have also wanted a larger gap than he held over Carapaz going into the final week on the road. Carapaz however, would surely have preferred to be in Roglič's position than his own.
Stages 14, 15 and 16 were lumpier than mountainous so if Ineos's leader was to become the champion, he would have to wait until the penultimate stage and the final summit finish of the race.
As Alto de la Covatilla approached he patiently waited to make his move. Perhaps he was too patient. By the time Carapaz attacked - and he wasn't actually the first to go, as Hugh Carthy surged before he did - there was barely two kilometres left on the stage. He was quickly able to turn a small advantage into a 25 second one, but with Roglic finding friends in the form of Movistar, never much more than that. The Slovenian dug in to save the race and avoid final day heartbreak for the second season. It may not be the Tour de France victory that he set his sights on at the start of the season but he finishes it as a double Grand Tour winner, all the same.
A final note on Chris Froome. His final race for Ineos was not the victory lap he or the team would have liked. He seemed a shadow of his former self as the photographers and video camera people spent more time pointing their equipment in his face than was probably fair. That's box office for you. The race was, however, generous enough to honour him for his retrospectively awarded 2011 Vuelta. Plus he made it all the way round. The answer to where he goes from here is, literally, Israel. Whether he can again compete at the highest level of the sport is a different matter. The new season is just a few months away.