It can still be a battle like a belt. The Belgian youngster Remco Evenepoel leads the overall standings of the famous race around Spain by more than a minute and a half ahead of the Slovenian matador Primož Roglič. It might seem like an obvious matter. But don’t be fooled. This can still be very confusing. No one is certain about the coming battle.
Why might this seem clear to Evenepoel? Because 1:34 min seems like a decent lead. And the 22-year-old Belgian is no slouch. He has already won 17 races, stages or valuable jerseys this year, including the Liège–Bastogne–Liège monument and the one-week stage of the Tour of Norway.
For almost the entire first two weeks of the Vuelta, he performed supremely. He won the time trial. Even though his rivals broke him in the 14th stage and he lost 48 seconds to his main rival, he recovered in one moment and did not take any more losses. He picked himself up and continued at a decent pace. He also lost in the following royal stage, but again it was no tragedy. He only lost a few seconds.
The most difficult stages of the Vuelta are already behind him and he successfully solved the great unknown of how his body will react to racing at high altitude in the Sierra Nevada. None of the following mountaintop finals – Wednesday at Monasterio de Tentudia, Thursday at Alto del Piornal and Saturday at Navacerrada – are as steep, as high.
Last but not least is his current form and ability to keep his cool. Evenepoel never panicked for a single day, finding his own pace and sticking to it. As the Cyclingnews website points out, winning a Grand Tour isn’t just about the winning days, it’s just as much about getting through the bad ones. Evenepoel is clearly learning fast to be the all-around favorite.
He has a super strong team behind him, one of the best and most experienced in the World Tour.
What plays against the Belgian
All this plays into his hands, but it still may not be enough. There are several question marks surrounding Remco Evenepoel.
The main one – the young Belgian has not yet finished the Grand Tour. He’s only ridden the Giro once, in 2021. And just like now in this Vuelta, he looked very good at the start. By the 15th stage, he was in the top ten, within striking distance of the podium. But he retired in the 17th stage.
Even now, on the verge of the third week, it is starting to lose. In addition, he lost his important assistant Pieter Serry due to covid. In the royal 15th stage, he remained completely alone at the front for a long time, and it seems that he himself determined the pace of the group in a non-tactical way.
The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team is super strong, but they don’t have the experience of winning a Grand Tour. He has never won one, partly because he hasn’t fully focused on this type of racing yet. And therein may be the problem.
Week three is uncharted territory for the talented Belgian. Just to give you an idea of what week three means. You have already covered over 2,000 km, terribly hard work day after day and increasing fatigue. Physical and mental. There’s a lot of pressure on you. You’ve already had your first falls. Team support is thinning. You know you can’t make a mistake. One more fall or defect at an inopportune moment, and all of a sudden there can be a loss not in the order of seconds, but even minutes.
Remco Evenepoel has already shown how strong a competitor he is. On the other hand, there is a certain fragility in it. He doesn’t like when things around him don’t work the way he imagines. This was shown, for example, when he fell in the 12th stage, when he collapsed due to his own fault in a downhill corner. Essentially unhurt and with minimal loss, he jumped into the saddle, but started shouting unnecessarily at the referees’ car and blaming everyone around him.
Evenepoel’s path to Belgium’s first Grand Tour victory since Johan De Muynck’s 1978 Giro victory appears unshakable. Potential obstacles remain, however, and the long history of last-minute debacles by powerful leaders is a strong warning against over-optimism.
Slovenian Roglič has not won nearly as much as Evenepoel this year. On the other hand, the first places in Paris–Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné are very valuable scalps.
Now in the Vuelta, he is second, not by a small distance, but not by a long distance either. Against Evenepoel, however, Roglič is like a cunning fox on the Grand Tour. The “Vuelta Champion” has won the Spanish race three times in a row (he was also second in the Tour and third in the Giro). And after those three victories, he basically has nothing to lose.
In the second week, Evenepoela began to withdraw. Slightly, but still. It was amazing to watch him, for example, in Sunday’s 15th royal stage to the top of the Sierra Nevada to a height of 2,512 m. Roglič was obviously not in his best shape. Nevertheless, he held on to the group leader and eventually gained more valuable seconds on Evenepoel.
The Slovenian can already do it. He knows how to wait for his moment, save his strength, knows all the necessary nuances of three-week battles.
Behind him is the excellent team Jumbo-Visma, which this year crushed Tadej Pogačar and won the Tour de France. Although they have now lost their key helper in the hills, the American Sepp Kuss, they have enormous self-confidence and the potential to break the current development of the race.
What is he playing against Slovenia?
Roglič is not certain, he is now worse off than the Belgian. Although Evenepoel started to lose time in the mountains, the Slovenian is running out of stages to make up for the loss. He has three remaining with mountain finishes. Or some twist on a flat stage when the wind blows. However, everyone knows that the Belgian team of Remco Evenepoel is the champion of windsurfing.
Roglič and Jumbo-Visma simply have to break the ambitious Belgian. When and where, that is the question. The joke is that the Vuelta has experienced more such last-minute twists than any other major race.
Now watch out. Enric Mas (Movistar) is still third behind. With a two-minute loss to the leader, he still has a chance. So far, it has been running quietly, but extremely consistently. Additionally, his Movistar team desperately needs UCI points to save their World Tour status.