Out of the crashes and the watch-behind-the-sofa viewing emerged a surprising and popular winner of the Vuelta a España’s stage seven, one that was representative of this unpredictable and chaotic race.
Geoffrey Soupe, a rider that has spent pretty much the entirety of his 13-year professional career working as a leadout man and barely ever getting his own opportunity to go for glory, was in the right position at the right time and held on for the most unexpected of victories in Oliva.
It was a stage of contrasts, of the formulaic and unforeseen. Starting from the sleepy wine-producing village of Utiel, the race first headed east towards the city of Valencia at a speed so slow that people were left waiting on the roadside half an hour later than the roadbook told them they would be. It was all gentle, a snoozy day to and then along the coast, sandwiched in between two brutal mountain stages.
But even on supposedly calm days this Vuelta a España appears fraught with risk, a magnet for unwanted drama. The opening weekend’s shenanigans are still producing the occasional aftershocks, and Ineos Grenadiers seem caught right in the middle of the epicentre: Geraint Thomas went down, again, and Thymen Arensman, the team’s co-leader, abandoned the race after a serious-looking fall six kilometres from the line.
His crash was the second in the final 10km, a finale that was characterised by narrow roads, far too much road furniture, a series of roundabouts, and an uneasy, nervous peloton that seemed to collectively lose its structure, organisation and flow.
Into the final few kilometres, and with no sprint trains able to come together due to the incidents, it was anybody’s game. He who dares wins, that sort of mentality. The pre-stage favourite, Kaden Groves, was positioned well with 500m remaining, but drifted back as the road swung left one final time with 300m to go. The Australian could only finish fifth, with Soupe, previously only recognisable by his thick black beard and friendly smile, going long and winning his first ever race on European soil aged 35.
It is indicative of this race - its strangeness and its nonconformity to conventions - that we should probably expect more Soupe-esque victors, members of the peloton who’ve never before got into the second row of tally win charts. Maybe we’ll even see Soupe win again, in the same way that Nico Denz of Bora-hansgrohe surprisingly won two stages at May’s Giro d’Italia.
This is because the race is operating at the upper levels of the stress barometer and has even become a little bit dysfunctional. The crashes in the final 10km on stage seven after a previously sanguine day will only heighten nerves further, especially among the GC riders who don’t need this tension, this disorder and mayhem, and will now gladly permit breakaways to go up the road and contest the finish in the coming fortnight.
The next three stages will be GC days, with two days in the mountains preceding a 25km mostly flat time trial. Norms would suggest that there’ll be a reshuffling of the general classification pack, with some riders falling away and some others bettering their position. But so frenzied and disorderly has this Vuelta become, only a brave individual would bet on the state of the race in a few days’ time. Soupe’s victory was just the latest reminder of the unpredictability of this race.