Vuelta a España goes down to the wire

Summit finish at La Covatilla will decide season's final grand tour at Vuelta a España.

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

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For the third time this season, a grand tour goes into the final weekend with nothing decided and everything in play.

First it was the Tour de France, with its emotional penultimate-stage time trial reversal on Belles-Filles. Last month, the Giro d’Italia came down to a nail-biting, final-stage time trial in Milano.

And now it’s the turn of the Vuelta a España. After 16 stages of racing, the GC at the Spanish grand tour is wound tighter than a drum. Three riders will race up the final climb Saturday of what’s been a mountainous and demanding Vuelta route with the red leader’s jersey up for grabs.

“It’s a big day coming tomorrow, the decisive one,” Primož  Roglič said after kicking to second in Friday’s 16th stage. “We have to maintain focus and do our best, and see what that means.”

Already a winner of four stages and ever aware of any opportunity, Roglič darted ahead of the reduced finishing group to finish second on the stage, and pick an extra six seconds with a time bonus. That widens his lead to Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) to 45 seconds, and to 53 seconds to third-place Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling).

A few more seconds in the pocket is always an edge going into any decisive stage.

“Gaining six seconds on a day we had a lot to lose a lot is important,” said Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett. “Movistar really tried to rip it apart from the start, and that really played into our hands.”

As Roglič pointed out, the six seconds he gained at the line Friday claws back more than half of the 10 seconds he lost at the top of the Angliru summit on Sunday.

Friday’s transition stage across the endless hills of Spain’s Extremadura region ended in a reduced bunch-sprint, leaving the GC favorites still knotted up at the top of the leaderboard. Coming on the heels of Thursday’s even more grueling stage, riders will be racing with weary legs on the beyond-category summit at Alto de La Covatilla (11.7km at 6.9 percent).

Will Roglič be able to hang on? His Tour de France collapse was under very different circumstances, coming against a rising Tadej Pogačar on a very challenging time trial course. Pogačar had the ride of his life, and Roglič was off his best.

On Saturday, a steady day in the saddle without any mistakes should see Roglič securing his lead. He’ll riding to defend the leader’s jersey, always an advantage on a climbing scenario that the peloton faces at La Covatilla. Plus, he will be backed by a swarm of yellow jackets at Jumbo-Visma. On paper, Roglič will have the advantage against his rivals.

“La Covatilla is a super-hard climb, and depending on what the wind is like over the top, it can make a difference,” said Jumbo-Visma teammate Sepp Kuss. “It’s steep at the bottom, and then more open near the top. Every stage we’ve had, it’s been real racing.”

Yet again, Movistar promises it will be pushing the pace in a final-hour attempt to break the peloton and to move Enric Mas, fifth overall at 3:29 back, closer to the final podium. The Spanish rider has been the best of the rest behind the leading four riders throughout this Vuelta, and he will need to erase a gap of 2:32 to Carthy and move up two places to hit the podium Sunday in Madrid.

“We are always a fighting team, so win or lose tomorrow, we’re going to go for it,” said Movistar’s José Joaquin Rojas. “Everyone is tired to the extreme. Yesterday was very hard, and I think tomorrow can deliver some big surprises. Let’s hope it benefits us, and we can push Enric Mas up onto the podium as high as possible in GC.”

Carapaz and Carthy both know it’s their final chance to shake Roglič. Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), fourth at 1:48 back, still believes in his podium chances.

“I’ve got nothing to lose now, so I think I’m going to gamble,” Carthy said. “With the stage win and several other top performances now I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m in a position now where I’m happy – I can go home happy. There’s no pressure or anyone with a knife at me to finish the job. I’ll try my best and if things go as they have done so far, I see no reason why I can’t have a stab at it.”

It sets the stage for another thrilling finale to what’s been a surprisingly hard-fought grand tour season in the most unprecedented of conditions.

And just to make the season’s final big show even better, forecasters are calling for cold temperatures in the mid-40s, with the chance of rain and gusting winds.

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