Back-to-back blockbuster climbs to reshuffle GC deck at Vuelta a España

Last chance for climbers to distance a more confident Primož Roglič in a pair of iconic summit finales.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

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Just days after the Giro d’Italia entered its final stage tied on time, the Vuelta a España pedals into a decisive weekend packed with two iconic summit finales with two riders tied at the top of the leaderboard.

Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) clawed back the leader’s jersey Friday with his third stage win from Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), but they’re tied on time after nearly two weeks of racing. Two more riders — Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Racing) — are less than one minute back.

Back-to-back summit finales stacked up Saturday and Sunday at Farrapona and the fearsome Angliru, respectively, should loosen up the gridlock at the top of the GC.

Back in the red jersey going into the weekend, Roglič said having the lead now won’t change things too much. Having it by Sunday evening going into the second rest day and a decisive time trial Tuesday certainly will.

“It doesn’t change much for our team, we need to keep the focus and momentum, and go day by day,” Roglič said. “A big weekend in the mountains, for sure it will be fun to watch, and we will do our best.”

The peloton is bracing for the hardest stages so far in what’s already been a bruising, front-loaded Vuelta.

With the race’s planned start in The Netherlands nixed due to the coronavirus pandemic, a shortened Vuelta of 18 stages dove straight into the mountains from the very first day. Only two stages since its start in Irún on October 25 have ended in sprints, and even Friday’s undulating stage over the green hills of Spain’s Cantabria region delivered a pinch at the end of the stage.

Roglič pounced with 200m to go on a sharp rise to dart past the attacking Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) to snag his third stage win of this Vuelta, and all but erase the time losses from his blunder at Formigal. Just enough space opened up between the chasing riders to prompt the race jury to measure time gaps at the line, putting Roglič back into the red leader’s jersey just in time for the decisive climbing weekend.

“I have tried many times to win since the beginning of the race. I do not want to leave this Vuelta without a victory, or without this climber’s jersey,” said Martin, who defended his King of the Mountains jersey. “I will stay aggressive and keep trying.”

If this Vuelta has already been tough enough, things will turn up a notch or more this weekend.

On Saturday, the peloton faces the five-climb, 170km 11th stage from Villaviciosa to Alto de la Farrapona. The final brutal climb in northern Spain straddles some of the last habitat of Spain’s few remaining brown bears and has been twice featured in the Vuelta. Rein Tarramaë won in its debut in 2011, and Alberto Contador won in its last appearance in 2014.

That’s quickly followed by the even shorter 109km, five-climb stage from Pola de Laviana to Alto de l’Angliru on Sunday. Considered one of the most demanding climbs in Europe, with ramps as steep as 24 percent, the Angliru is back for its eighth appearance in the Vuelta. The final climb is so steep that the differences at the line are sometimes not that dramatic. The real danger is getting gapped out on the approach, and then having no chance to chase back on.

Of the two stages, many fear that Saturday’s could be the more decisive.

Luckily for the riders, the weather is expected to hold throughout the weekend. Forecasters are calling for mostly sunny skies, with temperatures in the mid-70s. Northern Spain can have notoriously unpredictable autumn weather, so at least the peloton will be racing in near-ideal conditions.

“It’s a huge weekend ahead,” said Israel Start-Up Nation’s Martin, who defended third overall Friday. “One of the most difficult stages of any race in 2020 [is] tomorrow, so it will be a big test. I’m looking forward to it, and I always love racing in the mountains.”

With a 33.7km time trial waiting in Galicia on Tuesday, many see this as the last chance for the climbers like Martin to distance Roglič. Already a winner of three stages, Roglič is expected to take at least a minute (or more) on the climbers against the clock, so they know they need to gap Roglič this weekend if they hope to have a chance to win the Vuelta.

Movistar on stage 8 of the 2020 Vuelta a España
Movistar currently leads the team classification while Enric Mas leads the best young rider competition and sits fifth overall. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

“The stage was pretty easy, but the finale was very explosive,” Carapaz said Friday. “The team did a great job until then, but the best one won. Tomorrow and the next day are very decisive stages, and they will say a lot about who will win the Vuelta. These stages will decide a lot. We’re still in the fight, so we’ll see what happens.”

Tied on time, Carapaz has emerged as the most dangerous direct rival to Roglič, but the deep Movistar team lurks with three riders in the top-10. Enric Mas, fifth overall at 1:54 back, promises to keep swinging for the fences. Alejandro Valverde, eighth at 3:35 back, said fans should expect big changes in the GC this weekend.

“The upcoming two stages will be very difficult, and tactics will play a big factor,” Valverde said. “We always attack, for better or worse, but we try. Either one of the summits, Farrapona or the Angliru, can prove decisive. For me, Roglič is showing that he is the strongest in the race.”

Just like the Giro, which ended last Sunday with a clear winner despite starting the final stage tied on time, this weekend’s Vuelta should go a long way toward deciding who will in the overall title on November 8 in Madrid. With the third week featuring only one climb, everyone knows that Saturday’s and Sunday’s stages will prove decisive.

Roglič and Carapaz might be tied now, but they won’t be at the top of the Angliru in 48 hours.

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