One team time trial, two textbook sprint stages, an early GC shakeup, twice, a sprinkling of breakaway successes and a breakout victory that no one saw – the first nine stages of the 2022 Vuelta a España has had a bit of everything.
There’s plenty more racing to come, starting with the fairly long ITT (ultra-long if you’re a climber) immediately after the rest day, but we’ve already learned a great deal about the race’s overall contenders. Namely, that Remco Evenepoel looks alarmingly comfortable in red.
The general classification after stage 9
- Remco Evenepoel
- Enric Mas +1:12
- Primož Roglič +1:53
- Carlos Rodríguez +2:33
- Juan Ayuso +2:46
- Simon Yates +3:08
- João Almeida +4:32
- Miguel Ángel López +5:03
- Jai Hindley +5:36
- Pavel Sivakov +5:39
The gaps are getting big, especially lower in the standings, but there is no Tadej Pogačar at this race; there is no one (anymore) who is nailed on to win unless struck by bad luck.
After a leisurely start in the Netherlands, at least for the GC men, those who favour positive gradients got their first chance to really show themselves on stage 4. With the breakaway’s efforts ruined – apparently by over-interested TV motos – the overall favourites came to the fore on the punchy final climb, and to nobody’s surprise, Primož Roglič soared to victory, assuming the overall lead in the process.
The defending champion promptly gave away the red jersey just 24 hours later when the breakaway found its first success, but the GC contenders muscled their way back into focus on stage 6, only it wasn’t Roglič who rose to the top.
After providing a predictably toasty start, the weather gods had some fun on the first summit finish, and this is where the first real shakeup was made, and where Remco Evenepoel gagged his doubters.
With the stage win disappearing up the road, Roglič had got involved in the action early in the climb, but it was the young Belgian who had the legs, the lungs and the water resistance to drive on with little or no help from teammates or rivals. Only Enric Mas and Juan Ayuso seemed able to compete, while Roglič, Yates, Geoghegan Hart, Sivakov, Hindley, O’Connor, et al. floundered over a minute behind the young usurper.
Then came stage 9 and the Vuelta was in territory that was expected to suit Roglič better than anyone. But once again, Evenepoel made the final insanely steep climb his playground. The GC group was down to four, but then the red jersey dropped Ayuso and Roglič, then Mas with a handful of kilometres left to climb. By the top, he’d extended his advantage to 1:12 with his favoured discipline beckoning in Tuesday’s 30-kilometre TT.
A champion in waiting?
The 22-year-old has made his critics look fairly silly since the race left the Netherlands, riding with a controlled assurance that suits him more and more as each day passes. He’s the only rider to wear the red jersey for more than a single day so far, and after obliterating the competition again on stage 9, he looks like a champion in waiting. But the question remains: can he weather 21 stages?
The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl leader is still very young – if this can really be considered a weakness anymore – and his experience at grand tours is slim. He’s only started one, the 2021 Giro d’Italia, and he faded fast after an energetic first week, ultimately withdrawing on the morning of stage 18. The biggest criticism hurled at the young Belgian is his own self-control, but he and his team have looked every part the GC leaders since taking control on stage 6.
Who else is in the picture?
Currently sitting second is Mas who has become something of a nearly man in top-tier stage racing. From seven completed grand tours, the Spaniard has finished in the top six five times, including second at the Vuelta in 2018 and 2021. For such a demonstrably brilliant climber, the 27-year-old’s palmarès is surprisingly sparse, but his GC stock has been on the rise since joining Movistar, and now, after a turbulent first half of the season, it finally looks like 2022 is coming good for Mas. He just has to solve the Remco issue…
Roglič is no stranger to riding a race of redemption at the Vuelta. In good spirits at the Tour de France, he joked that he was in training for the Spanish grand tour until the effects of his early crash ultimately forced him out of the race. With doubts over a lingering back injury, his form is perhaps more hazy than is typical at this time of year. Stage 4 victory from a group of charging favourites was a good sign, but he sagged on the first summit finish, and again when Storm Evenepoel struck on stage 9. However, the three-time champion knows this race, not least that it’s long, and the hardest stages are yet to come.
Then there are the only other grand tour winners still there or thereabouts in Simon Yates and Jai Hindley who have been quietly limiting losses up to now. Tao Geoghegan Hart was also up there until Sunday’s stage 9 where a crash on the rapid run-in to the final climb saw him lose a chunk of time and drop to 12th.
At the other end of the spectrum are debutants Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and youngest-at-the-race Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), 21 and 19 years old, and currently separated by just three seconds in fourth and fifth. They’re doing remarkable impressions of overall contenders while some of the elder statesmen continue to suffer.
It’s impossible to make any real conclusions with so much racing still to come, but one thing is for sure: at the end of the first ‘week’ of the Vuelta, all those still in contention have question marks hanging over them.
Who’s in trouble?
Everyone has lost more time than they might have hoped to the race leader, but while Yates, João Almeida, Miguel Ángel López and Jai Hindley are hanging onto top-10 places, others will be returning to the drawing board on Monday’s rest day.
Of the pre-race favourites, Mikel Landa is worst off. Lady Luck is rarely on the Basque rider’s side, but after making a long-awaited second visit to the Giro podium earlier this year, he looked on track to continue his run of top-10 finishes (of grand tours he completes) at his home race. However, he lost a shade under six minutes in the mists of stage 6 and another chunk on stages 8 and 9, putting him way down in the low 20s overall with a deficit of a round 17 minutes.
Landa is nearing the point at which even a breakaway stage win won’t be enough to leapfrog back into the top 10, but he won the combativity award on Saturday, so there’s that…
Richard Carapaz is faring hardly any better. The 2019 Giro winner came to the Vuelta as one of several options for the Ineos Grenadiers, and despite being the team’s “trump card” from the start, he now finds himself playing fourth fiddle, and by quite some margin. After losing yet more time on Sunday – perhaps deliberately – Carapaz is now 26th overall, almost fifteen minutes down. With Geoghegan Hart also dropping out of the top 10 and Pavel Sivakov hovering around 10th overall, the hopes of the Ineos Grenadiers are settling every more heavily on the narrow shoulders of their young Spanish champion and grand tour debutant Rodríguez.