Peloton pushed to limit at marathon Vuelta a España stage: ‘It’s not necessary’

Headwinds and heavy rain made for a tough 230km day at the Vuelta on Thursday as questions over the length of grand tour stages re-emerge.

Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

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After 230 kilometers and nearly six-and-a-half hours of racing, Jasper Philipsen scored a debut grand tour win at the Vuelta a España on Thursday. The young Belgian hails from Mol, also home to Tom Boonen. Fittingly enough, 22-year-old Philipsen’s debut grand tour victory was truly monument-worthy.

The peloton rolled out of the neutral zone near Spain’s western coast early Thursday morning in cool autumnal air and heavy mist, bundled up in full leg-warmers, heavy jackets, and gloves. For the better part of five hours, they toiled through a fierce 30kph headwind. With the finish line looming on the horizon, the heavens opened, and the rain poured down on what became a Spanish equivalent of a northern classic.

“It was practically slow motion, everyone was so numb,” said Dion Smith (Mitchelton-Scott), fifth in the final sprint. “I can’t feel my face now, I can barely talk.”

The young New Zealander was at the front of a race that played out on 231 kilometers of rolling Galician hills, a parcours that would have made any Belgian race-designer happy. Logan Owens’ Strava file reveals that with the neutral zone included, the day made for nearly 240km of pedaling, and almost 4,400 meters of elevation.

“It looked really hard on the profile. It was one of the stages with the most meters of climbing and the longest of the Vuelta, too,” Philipsen said after his victory. “It was definitely not an easy, flat stage.”

Thursday’s ride into Puebla de Sanabria was one of two that race organizers had to rearrange this summer after originally-planned crossings into Portugal were scrapped due to coronavirus concerns in the neighboring country. It’s unclear whether the redesigned parcours worked out at six-and-a-half hours in the saddle due to intention or unavoidable necessity as race heads were forced into stitching together a then-fractured route. However, Thursday’s stage did resurface questions over what is acceptable in the middle of a grand tour.

“It was even more than a hard day,” said Enric Mas (Movistar), fifth overall. “It was a long day, which because of that length and because of the wind, it has ended up being very demanding. I am of the opinion that so many kilometers in stages of this type are not necessary, but the organization has arranged it and we had to spend today looking ahead to the rest of the week.”

The GC group entered self-preservation mode rather than trying to gain time over each other. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Last month, the Giro d’Italia was thrown into frenzy after riders called strike ahead of a 258km stage deep in the race’s tough final week in the Alps. While the peloton’s protest that day was more a result of the foul weather and accumulated load of repeated 200km-plus days in the Italian Alps, the marathon mileage also played a part as a weary peloton pushed back.

There was no protest or shortening of the stage in Spain on Thursday, but it did shut down the GC racing. As a gritty breakaway group toiled into the wind at the front of the race, the group of favorites behind went into preservation mode.

“It was a very long day,” said race-leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). “It was a very fast stage again and there was a lot of wind. The bad weather at the end also made this a very tough day. I am glad that it is over, and that we can look forward to the final stages.”

“With the headwind and the rain in the final section it was not a day where we could have tested others,” Mas said. “As we saw, that wind complicated any attack and has made us reach the sprint.”

Thursday’s marathon march toward central Spain saw domestiques yo-yo-ing between the bunch and team cars to ferry clothes and bidons to their captains. With another hilly stage on tap Friday and a decisive summit finish atop La Covatilla coming Saturday, the closely-nestled top-3 of Roglič, Richard Carapaz and Hugh Carthy have to be on top of their game, and keeping warm and dry was essential.

“At this time of year, the cold is very intense and our greatest fear is that the riders will enter hypothermia,” Movistar team helper Juan Carlos Escámez told AS. “If a rider goes into hypothermia, it can be crucial for the outcome of the race. In the cars, we have a lot of dry clothes and food, but the risk exists,”

Teams bundled up their riders in deep winter gear after the stage to ensure their health for the three remaining days of the race. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Vuelta race director Javier Guillen and other race officials could not have forecasted the foul weather that landed atop of the Vuelta peloton Thursday, however, the distance of the stage left riders exposed to the wearing weather that made it feel even longer.

And the epic stages aren’t going to stop. ASO revealed the 2021 Tour de France route Sunday, which packs a 248km seventh stage through Saône-et-Loire, and a 220km haul into Carcassone one week later. The route of next year’s Tour saw the ASO slide more toward the center of the axis between the attritional, old-school template of the Giro, and the dynamic, innovative style of the Vuelta after recent years of shorter, more explosive Spanish-style stages.

Christian Prudhomme’s return toward longer and the odds-on bet that RCS Sport isn’t going to abandon trademark marathon Giro stages is a sign that six-hour days at grand tours are here to stay. For now, all the peloton can do is buckle up and be braced for long stages and foul weather, whether racing in the off-kilter dates of the 2021 autumn season or the traditional high summer slots reserved for the Tour and Vuelta.

“It is obvious that a storm can also hit you in July and leave the same risk of entering hypothermia, but now there are more possibilities,” Movistar soigneur Escámez said. “For us [the staffers], as for the runners, being in competition in November is also new, so we have to adapt.”

Of course, for some, the longer and harder the ride the better. German neo-pro Jannik Steimle embraced the classics-style stage Thursday.

“I liked the stage and the weather,” Steimle said after racing to a breakout third on the stage. “I was really looking forward to it this morning.”

Whether riders enjoyed the day or not, even those that profited most from the six-and-a-half-hour sufferfest had one main thing on their mind after their big day out.

“A hot bath,” Philipsen joked when asked how he’d be celebrating after his victory Thursday night.

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