The defining story of the GC race during the first week of the Vuelta a España was one of youthful talents flourishing.
Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) was of course the headline star in this respect. The 22-year-old somehow not only lived up to the unreasonable amount of hype directed his way prior to the race, but even exceeded it with a series of outstanding displays. Over the weekend, he backed up his dominant ride up the Pico Jano on stage six with two more exceptional performances, proving he could excel on long climbs by reaching the top of the 10.3km Colláu Fancuaya on stage eight with just Enric Mas (Movistar) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) left with him, and on super-steep efforts by extending his lead on GC to over a minute after riding away from everyone on the double-digit gradients of stage nine’s Les Praeres.
But Evenepoel isn’t the only young prodigy to have made the leap to Grand Tour level last week. Look away now those reading who don’t want to feel old, but three of the current top five in the Vuelta were born after the turn of the millennium.
Twenty-one-year-old Carlos Rodríguez is fourth overall, having outperformed the same Ineos Grenadiers teammates (Richard Carapaz and Pavel Sivakov) that he has impressed so much riding in support of. With Tao Geoghegan Hart losing time after a crash on stage nine, he will surely now take over leadership duties at the team.
And just three seconds behind Rodríguez in fifth is the even younger Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), also making his Grand Tour debut. The 19-year-old has already caught the eye several times this season in the WorldTour with top five finishes at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie, but few expected him to take to this elite level of racing quite so quickly.
These riders have thrown a real spanner in the works to the GC race, and are making life tough for the more established stars — most notably the defending champion Roglič. When he rode away with Evenepoel and Mas on Colláu Fancuaya, it seemed like a likely podium was already being formed, featuring two of the men who stood on it last year. But on Les Praeres the next day he and Mas were gazumped by not just Evenepoel, but the two young Spaniards as well, who clawed back to them on the climb then put them both into difficulty.
Watching Roglič look ahead while three riders over a decade his junior receded into the distance, it was difficult not to identify a metaphor for where he is at in his career. Aged 32, the Slovenian can’t have many years of his prime left, and at no point this year has he quite reached the heights achieved when winning this race last year. Although it’s fair to say he’s probably still being held back by the after-effects of the fractured vertebrae suffered at the Tour de France, his relative troubles also appear to be as much about the competition being stronger as it is him being weaker. After all, his standard in relation to the other riders isn’t that different to last year, with Mas once more able to compete with him while others are left adrift; it’s just that this time, there are three new riders who are also at his and Mas’ level.
The same can be said for several of the other GC hopefuls you find themselves lower in the rankings that they will have targeted. Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) looks in good shape, but can’t quite match their pace, meaning he’s down in sixth at 3-08. Only recently heralded as the next big thing, 24-year-old João Almeida is being outshone by his UAE Team Emirates teammate Ayuso, and finds himself down in seventh at 4-32 despite barely putting a foot wrong. And while the travails of Bora-Hansgrohe’s Jai Hindley (ninth at 5-36) and especially Richard Carapaz (26th at 14-34) can perhaps be attributed to failure to attain a second peak following their Giro podium finishes, the difficulties riders like Miguel Ángel López (eighth at 5-03) and Ben O’Connor (13th at 5-53) are having keeping up could be down to the increased standards caused by the new generation rather than their own failures.
As tempting as it is to get carried away by what Evenepoel is doing at this Vuelta, and as excited as the home Spanish fans must be by Ayuso and Rodríguez following such a long fallow period of talent emerging from the nation, we need to remember that there is still a lot of racing left in this Vuelta. Evenepoel’s lack of experience and the fact he hasn’t yet finished a Grand Tour has been widely discussed, but the Spanish duo are even more inexperienced, with both making their Grand Tour debuts.
Lots of questions therefore still needed to be answered by all three. Can they retain this level during the second and third weeks? How will they cope with the high altitude reached on the Sierra Nevada climb next weekend? And how will day after day of potential searingly hot temperatures in southern Spain affect them? There’s much more to finishing high at a Grand Tour than going well during the first week.
Evenepoel has so far risen to every challenge he’s been faced with, and passed with flying colours tests he has in the past failed to overcome. He performed consistently throughout the first week, and recovered rapidly from each effort to attain the same level the next day. And he’s shown no weakness on any of the climbs so far, the kind of efforts that has been his undoing in previous races. For someone who has only twice before made the top ten of a WorldTour level stage race, and never before in any with climbs as big and as long as those faced last week, this Vuelta has already marked a huge leap forward for him.
His lead of 1-12 ahead of Mas in second place, 1-53 on Roglič and over 2-30 on everyone else is likely to grow even bigger after Tuesday’s stage ten, given that the time trial is perhaps the best of the many disciples he excels at. There’s still every chance he fades as he gets deeper into the Vuelta; but it’s getting to the point where he can afford to do so and still wind up winning the red jersey.