Jesús Herrada had won the stage with one, stinging attack on the final climb of the day. In just a few strong pedal strokes he’d opened up a gap of over five seconds to his breakaway companions and crossed the finish line with time to sit up and celebrate. That was a sign, then, that the ascent to La Laguna Negra on stage 11 of the Vuelta a España was hard enough for time gaps to be created, gaps that could be absolutely crucial to those fighting for the overall victory in this year’s race.
So then as the next five minutes passed, we watched and we waited for the general classification contenders behind to begin throwing punches behind. We looked at them to try and steal seconds where they could on the steep slopes – seconds that could prove utterly crucial later on in this race. What transpired, however, was a very different reality.
Remco Evenepoel’s Soudal-Quick-Step team spread themselves across the width of the road to create what could almost be described as a blockade. They made it hard for any GC contenders to launch attacks and Evenepoel himself didn’t make any moves either. The mood in the bunch was strange, Jumbo-Visma sat behind the Belgian team, poised and ready for anything, nervously expectant of a signature Remco sprint. Jonas Vingegaard even admitted after the stage that his team truly believed attacks would be launched on La Laguna Negra today.
In fact, in years gone by, this was a stage that would have had Primož Roglič’s name written all over it. The sting in the tail, the way the gradients kicked upwards – it is the Slovenian rider’s bread and butter. The problem is, though, that it suits Remco Evenepoel perfectly too. With this, two rival teams have created a tentatively poised stalemate. Neither wants to commit its full resources to going for a stage win that they only have half a chance at securing. Evenepoel is too fast for Jumbo to risk it and Quick-Step knows that Roglič can get the better of their star rider sometimes, just like he did on stage eight during the sprint to Xorret de Catí.
The poker that both teams are playing is also due to the eye-wateringly tough terrain still to come in this race. In just a few days time, the race will head up the Tourmalet and through the Pyrenees, then arguably the hardest climb in cycling, the Alto de l’Angliru, awaits on stage 17. Soudal-Quick-Step have been criticised in the past for their lack of climbing domestiques and it seems as if the Belgian team are trying to conserve every ounce of energy they can to support Evenepoel in the mountains. Jumbo-Visma knows that those brutal climbs are where they can really make the difference – it is on the slopes of the Tourmalet that they have the chance to put minutes into their rivals, so scrapping for measly seconds today just doesn’t seem worth it.
Evenepoel himself said after the stage finished today: “We were in front [on the final climb] and some guys started to set the pace and I was telling them to slow down and stay calm. It's not up to us to take the race in our hands. I think they were a bit too excited today, but in the end they listened to me and we really calmed it down, it made no sense to do hard pacing on this final climb.”
When he was told that Vingegaard had expected him and his team to launch some attacks today, the Belgian responded: “It seems that we’re a bit unpredictable. I’m not going to attack on every climb and at every opportunity. It's still a long Vuelta these guys [Jumbo-Visma] are with three in the top seven. They have all the cards in their hands, it is not just down to us. They have a super strong team for the high mountains and I feel like it’s going to be a bigger challenge to follow them than to attack myself.”
So as the fabled mountains loom, the tension at the Vuelta a España is higher than ever. There’s one team everyone is looking at with three leaders in Jumbo-Visma, who hold the red jersey but with a rider who no one would have expected ahead of the race. There’s Evenepoel who is perhaps the underdog against the team in yellow, but who everyone knows is a fighter. There is UAE Team Emirates who have been eerily quiet so far this race, but have Marc Soler sitting calmly in second place, who no one seems to be talking about at all.
The final climb in today’s stage felt like the general classification battle in the Vuelta a España was slowly simmering away. In a few days time, it will reach boiling point.