The Itzulia Basque Country Tour took place over six stages, all of which featured punishing climbs in the Basque region. It would also be the first opportunity for Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, the 1-2 from last year’s Tour de France, to go head-to-head in 2021.
The race trended quickly in the direction of the Slovenians as both riders had won a stage after three days, Roglič the opening time-trial and Pogačar on the Ermualde climb on stage three.
The race took an unanticipated twist on stage four, though, as Brandon McNulty and Jonas Vingegaard, teammates of the aforementioned Slovenian duo, attacked late-on with company from the likes of Pello Bilbao and Ion Izagirre. The 49 second-gap at the line between the two groups meant UAE-Team Emirates gained the lead with McNulty. Vingegaard also moved up to third in the GC but was still behind his team leader Roglič.
This set the stage for an intriguing tactical finale. Were Jumbo-Visma correct to openly relinquish the leader's jersey? Would UAE fight for McNulty or turn to Pogačar, who was now 43 seconds down on the American race leader?
In the end, the race would be decided in the descent of the Alto de Elosua climb on the final stage to Arrate. With 60km still remaining, Astana Premier-Tech attacked and were swiftly followed by Roglič, Gaudu and Valverde among others. UAE were notable by their absence and Pogacar pulled for McNulty in the valley — the first sign of who they were riding for. New acquisition Marc Hirschi was dropped back from the breakaway to pull, but UAE would never see Roglič again.
Primož Roglič went to the line with David Gaudu of Groupama-FDJ, who was handed the stage win by Roglič after helping him win the GC. Jonas Vingegaard was also noteworthy, marking Tadej Pogacar in sublime fashion throughout which meant he could hold on to finish 2nd overall, a 1-2 for Jumbo-Visma.
Should Jonas Vingegaard ride the Tour de France in 2021?
Jumbo Visma at La Vuelta 2021 (Image credit: ASO/GOMEZSPORT)
The 24-year-old Dane has had a supreme 2021 season thus far and is more than making his case for a spot on the Jumbo-Visma Tour de France team. He started in the UAE Tour and won on Jebel Jais. Next, Vingegaard headed to the Coppi e Bartali, a 2.1 category race where he’d be able to ride purely for his own ambitions. He didn’t disappoint, winning two stages and the GC, beating riders such as Mikkel Honoré, Mauri Vansevenant and Ilan Van Wilder, all of whom also impressed in the Basque Country Tour.
Vingegaard's third race of the year was the Basque Country where he shone yet again. He finished third in the opening time-trial, a result which demonstrates his well-rounded stage-racing prowess. He was unable to win a stage despite a good chance on stage 4, but Vingegaard has proven he is indispensable to the team and should be strongly considered for the Tour de France this season.
The Dane’s inexperience may be all that counts against him — his first Grand Tour appearance was last year’s La Vuelta a España. Jonas Vingegaard, get used to hearing the name.
Is Brandon McNulty the USA's most exciting Grand Tour prospect?
Brandon McNulty is already an elite time-trialist (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
One of the other young stars to provide a notable performance in Spain was Brandon McNulty. From Phoenix, McNulty has only just turned 23 so has plenty of time to hone his skills, yet is already going toe-to-toe with the best in the world.
This is particularly the case in the time-trial discipline. McNulty finished fourth in both the Paris-Nice and Volta Catalunya time-trials earlier this season. This time, though, McNulty managed second place in Bilbao, just two seconds behind Primož Roglič. It is clear that McNulty’s time trial ability is a major strength and puts him in a fine position to challenge for stage-races moving forward.
On the other hand, McNulty’s weakness right now is his inconsistency when the road goes uphill. He has proven to be a great climber before, but doesn't always reach this level which proved costly on stage 6. The American is heading to the Giro d’Italia again this season although he may have preferred more time-trial kilometres. He is quickly evolving as a rider and should be considered among the favourites in Italy.
Is David Gaudu a stage-hunter or Grand Tour contender?
David Gaudu winning at La Vuelta 2020 (Image credit: ASO/GOMEZSPORT)
David Gaudu is rapidly maturing from one of France’s most exciting prospects into one of the best climbers in the world. Gaudu has found great joy in Spain lately, winning two stages at La Vuelta last season and now winning the queen stage of the Basque Country Tour. It was a real show of strength from the Frenchman who was the only rider able to stay with Roglič throughout the stage to Arrate. Roglič gifted the stage win to Gaudu as a sign of gratitude for the work he’d done in helping him win the race.
Unlike McNulty, Gaudu’s clear weakness is the time-trial. His GC bid was almost over after the first day when he lost over one minute to Roglič over 13.9km. This makes it tricky to know what Gaudu can achieve this year and throughout his career. Should he focus on stage-wins where he doesn’t need to worry about his time-trialling, or can he develop his ability on the TT bike to compete with those gunning for the overall classification?
Gaudu is heading to the Tour de France this season where he will get the chance to lead Groupama-FDJ in the absence of Thibaut Pinot. We think that the GC may be a step too far for Gaudu this time with 60km of time-trialling on the menu, but he could well become a stage winner at his home Grand Tour. He’ll also be competing in the Ardennes Classics over the coming weeks, watch out for the diminutive Frenchman there.
Primoz vs. Tadej: Round One
Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic at the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: ASO/Alex Broadway/SWPix)
This was the first race in 2021 where we were treated to Primoz vs. Tadej. The two heavy favourites for this year’s Tour de France are set to go toe-to-toe again this season.
Primoz goes 1-0 up after winning in the Basque Country, but the battle is just beginning. The duo will likely match-up against each other in the Ardennes Classics and the Criterium du Dauphine before the Tour de France in July. We cannot wait to see how the duel pans out...
Cover image: ASO/Alex Broadway/SWPix