Thursday August 25 2022 was a day that has been years in the making. It was the stage that the generational talent of Remco Evenepoel (Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl) at last announced himself at Grand Tour level, fulfilling the talent we have long known him to possess in the sternest format of road cycling.
The 22-year-old seized control of the GC race at the Vuelta a España with a dominant ride up the Pico Jano, dropping every one of his GC rivals bar Enric Mas (Movistar) to take the red jersey. He might not have caught Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck) to win the stage, but this still felt like a breakthrough moment in the Belgian’s career, when he made the transition from classics and stage race superstar to Grand Tour contender.
But how much did we really learn about the Belgian that we weren’t already aware of? Evenepoel’s ability to produce sensational performances on single days has not been in doubt, as demonstrated by his sublime wins at both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and San Sebastian earlier this year.
Granted, this was new ground for Evenepoel in terms of the severity of the climbing. He has been known to falter on longer, sustained efforts like the Pico Jano, which, being 12.5km at an average gradient of 6.5%, was a genuine category one mountain top finish.
But there are still sterner tests to come, and Evenepoel still has a lot to demonstrate before we can confidently say he is ready to win this Vuelta.
First, he has to produce these kinds of climbing performances consistently. Grand Tours are all about consistency, and a single bad day would undo all of the gains he has made so far. The back-to-back summit finishes this weekend will be especially telling.
Secondly, it must be remembered that Evenepoel has never finished a Grand Tour. Sure, he can climb that well after six days of racing, but can he reproduce such a performance during the second and then third week?
And though the Pico Jano, there are still significantly harder mountains to come — most notably the high-altitude test of Sierra Nevada on stage fifteen. All the action on the Pico Jano might just have been a proxy war for what’s to come that day, where the final fate of the Vuelta could really be decided.
The Grand Tour experience of the riders lurking below Evenepoel on GC might therefore still prove to be a trump card. Within two minutes of the Belgian are four riders who have all previously won Grand Tours. One of those is of course Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who had before that stage once again looked the man to beat.
While Roglič’s performance on the Pico Jano indicates that he is indeed still lacking his best legs following the injury sustained at the Tour de France, by finishing inside a large chasing group of GC favourites to keep himself as high as fourth on GC at 1-01, the defending champion is still well in contention. Evenepoel and the other contenders have much to fear if he works his way into top form over the next two weeks.
Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) were also among the eleven riders to finish in the Roglič group, and, as previous winners of Grand Tours, can also be reasonably expected to grow into the race gradually. Hindley was content to follow wheels and limit his losses, but Yates was an animated figure on the Pico Jano, attacking near the bottom before Evenepoel made his attack. That he was unable to go clear suggests he’s not yet on top form though, which might be concerning for a rider who usually starts Grand Tours with a bang.
The fourth past winner is an Ineos Grenadiers rider, but not the one you might expect. 2020 Giro champion Tao Geoghegan Hart finished in the same group as Roglič to put himself seventh on GC at 1-27, but the team’s leader and most favoured rider Richard Carapaz was dropped. He’s now down in 19th with an already big deficit of 2-56 to make up on Evenepoel, and, unless that turns out to be a single bad day, doesn’t appear to have the form to compete in this race.
With Pavel Sivakov and Grand Tour debutant Carlos Rodriguez also looking good, at 1-27 and 1-34 respectively, Ineos have multiple options for the GC, but none with the dependability and pedigree of Carapaz.
Might dependability and pedigree be trumped by raw talent, however? Like Rodriguez, Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) is now in the top eight following a breakthrough performance on stage six, and even managed to break out of the chasing group to finish fourth and gain 42 seconds. The 19-year-old’s talent has been made clear throughout the season, and if anything he looks even better so far at the Vuelta. As with Evenepoel, there’s always the fear that he might lack consistency and third week experience, but with such a young rider and unknown quantity, you don’t know what his ceiling is.
Should Evenepoel and Ayuso indeed falter, Enric Mas (Movistar) is the rider best placed to capitalise. Between Evenepoel’s performance and the surprise win from Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Mas’ ride went a little under the radar, but it was a seriously impressive one. He was the only rider to come even close to matching Evenepoel on the climb, and ultimately managed to avoid being dropped, therefore gaining 1-21 on most of the other contenders and moving up to third on GC at 28 seconds.
The way he stayed glued to Evenepoel’s wheel up the climb was reminiscent of last year’s Vuelta, when he similarly followed Primož Roglič everywhere he went. If there is a criticism that can be made of a rider who has twice finished on the podium and three times made the top six without ever actually winning a Grand Tour, it’s that he lacks a certain x-factor and ruthlessness. He’ll need to launch attacks of his own if he’s to make the most of this form and win the race rather than collect another podium finish.
With João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates), Wilco Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe), Gino Mäder (Bahrain-Victorious), Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën) and Thymen Arensman (DSM) are also looking good and still in contention within 2-14 of the red jersey, this Vuelta remains wide open. Should Evenepoel’s grip on the red jersey indeed loosen, there will be multiple riders poised to take it from him. An exciting weekend of racing in Asturias looks on the cards.