LA VUELTA A ESPANA 2021: WEEK 1



22.8.2021



As far as first weeks of grand tours go, the opening week of La Vuelta a Espana, 2021 edition, has been more than satisfactory, as far as Team Jumbo Visma fans are concerned. Which is more than can be said for the other two, this year.


The final grand tour of the season has a familiar feel to it: for the second season in row, team leader Primoz Roglic heads to the race hoping to end his season on a high, following disappointment at the Tour de France. Last year it was the drama of the final day’s time trial loss to Tadej Pogacar. This year, the outcome was the same in terms of the eventual winner, but it was brutal crashes and the resultant injuries that forced Rogla to bow out of the race early. For the second consecutive year following disappointment in France, Primoz goes to Spain hoping to win. Even more significantly, a win this year would complete a hattrick rarely seen in modern cycling.


The short, technical opening day’s prologue was 7.1km of cobbles, twists and turns and short climbs. Fresh from his gold medal winning performance in Tokyo, the Olympic time trial champion took to the course on his custom-made golden cervelo and matching helmet, a tasteful reminder of his achievement. Primoz was the last man to roll off the start ramp on a day that had provided many great performances, the greatest to that point being produced by Astana’s Alex Aranburu, who had kept his spot in the so-called hot seat for a significant period of time. When Roglic came across the line 6 seconds faster, it felt almost cruel, but it was not unexpected.


With the red jersey on Roglic’s back, and the unexpected bonus of Sepp Kuss taking the mountains jersey, Jumbo Visma shifted into defence mode. Stage 2 was all about control and keeping a cool head, which didn’t prove problematic for the team. However, with the steep climb of Picón Blanco to contend with at the finish, stage 3 offered an early opportunity for the climbers to have a dig; equally, it represented the first real challenge to Primoz’s red jersey defence.


It was a day for the breakaway in the end, with Intermarche Wanty-Gobert Materiaux’s Estonian veteran Rein Taaramae taking the stage honours and with it, the jersey; such was the time gap he pulled out over the GC group. This was a group that contained Primoz, along with two of the three INEOS Grenadiers leaders (not Richard Carapaz, who suffered on the climb), three from Movistar, Mikel Landa and Giulio Ciccone. The elite group was rising to the top quite literally, but Enric Mas was the only one able to steal a few seconds on his rivals over the line.


The next few days were all about consolidation and Jumbo Visma played it smart, conserving their energy and enjoying the luxury of not having to drive the peloton, thanks to the red jersey residing with other teams, changing hands from Taaramae to Trek Segafredo’s Kenny Ellissonde, and the sprint teams pushing the pace as Jesper Phillipsen and Fabio Jakobsen traded blows on the flat stages.


The chaotic final of stage 6 was the first time things got truly tricky, with the madness of the winding finish up the Alto de la Montana de Cullera, and the host broadcaster struggled to keep track of who was where. Finally with a few hundred metres remaining, and EF’s Magnus Cort closing in on victory, a small group of chasers emerged on his wheel, including Primoz, who was able to close the gap to just over a bike length and steal precious seconds over all of his competitors.





Stage 7 was a classic Vuelta day of endless climbing and descending. Featuring six categorised climbs and a few uncategorised, the day begun with a literal uphill battle to establish a breakaway. When it eventually broke free it was a formidable group of thirty riders, including Sepp Kuss who played the role of marshal, ostensibly there to ensure no major threats broke free or tried to put too much time into Primoz. Sepp sadly suffered a mechnical on the second last climb of the day though and was unable to break free.


As the GC group hit the penultimate climb Movistar attacked and Valverde took off, followed by Carapaz and Yates amongst others. Robert Gesink was too strong though and closed down the attack bringing the group back together. As Valverde veered off the road, Carapaz was left to strike out alone and was later joined by Lopez and Roglic who crept up on his wheel too. Valverde’s race sadly looked to be over and the impact shook the GC group enough for them to once again come back together.


As INEOS’ Pavel Sivakov and DSM’s Michael Storer bickered their way up the final climb of the day, the GC group were in full race mode, and after a day of solid hard work by Robert Gesink and Sam Oomen in domestique mode, Steven Krijswijk took the reins, calm and assured as he led the elite group into the impossible inclines of the Balcon de Alicante. Only when Adam Yates tested the group did he drop away, leaving Primoz and the GC contenders to challenge one another all the way to the finish line.


The team look in great shape with one more mountain stage in store before the first rest day. Primoz appears relaxed and given the evidence to date, his form looks to have returned following his injuries. Seeing him challenge on serious gradients is heartening and there is a sense that he is simply waiting for the right time to do some serious damage to his rivals’ chances. The team have worked as one, back to the cohesive, well-drilled unit we have grown accustomed to seeing in recent seasons, yet have maintained a and a measured approach to the defence of the jersey when it has been required. And, crucially, they have taken no unnecessary risks and managed to steer clear of danger, avoiding the (admittedly few) crashes that have occurred. As an unexpected bonus, Sepp Kuss lies in 9th position on the GC, giving the team an extra reason to drive into week two with momentum in their favour.


It’s been a near-perfect start: a stage win, two men in the top ten on GC and five of a possible eight days in the red jersey. Can the Jumbo Visma boys continue their dominant display into the second week? Join me next weekend to review their progress.