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The race tilts into its final phase with Evenepoel shaken but not unseated at the top of GC after surviving an onslaught in Andalucia. Roglič and Mas sit 1:34 and 2:01 back, gaps made greater by a third week that might not be enough to make the difference.
“The third week is a bit of another story,” Evenepoel said after he leaked just a handful of seconds Sunday. “The climbs are not super hard anymore. I think yesterday I had a pretty shit day, today it was better and in the end I almost lost no time.”
- Evenepoel suffers but doesn’t shatter in Sierra Nevada
- Mas snatches back seconds as podium battle tightens
Tuesday through Friday sees a sprinter stage, two hilly breakaway stages and a summit finish that provide a lot of vertical but none of the grade that got Evenepoel in a sweat on the Pandera on Saturday.
Roglič and Mas might need a masterstroke to raid the red jersey before stage 20, a Vuelta classic where the race looks poised to come to an explosive ending.
A final weekend frenzy is the Vuelta’s newest calling card.
Stage 20’s shark-tooth profile through the rugged Extremadurra outside of Madrid is the type of terrain that saw Miguel Ángel López lose his mind last year and left Roglič close to unraveling the season before that.
“It’s a classic route along the Guadarrama mountain range, with climbs up the Morcuera and Canencia mountain passes and two laps of Navacerrada,” Vuelta route collaborator Fernando Escartīn said of Saturday’s stage northwest of Madrid .
Five smaller mountain passes across tight and technical tracks on Saturday could be crucial in who wears the crown of the 2022 Vuelta.
The five percent grinder of a summit finish to Piornal on Thursday may not make the difference. A double ascent of the Puerto del Piélago for stage 19 the next day won’t unwind GC with its 40km descent to the final.
The stage is set for the 20th day of racing.
“The teams can prepare their battle strategies from the beginning and make this stage a decisive one for the general classification,” Escartīn said of stage 20.
Evenepoel heading into the final week: ‘I won the mental game’
Yet Roglič and Mas can’t afford to wait for the weekend with Evenepoel so tight in the driver’s seat.
For the Slovenian and Spainiard, a podium finish won’t make a dent on their palmarès – a red jersey is all that matters.
“Today I was able to make another step towards my big goal, to wear the red leader’s jersey in Madrid,” Roglič said after he challenged but couldn’t crack Evenepoel on Sunday.
Roglič and Jumbo-Visma looked resurgent through the “Andalucian Alps” this weekend, but gained back just 63 seconds in two hard-fought stages.
“I have not collapsed. I kept fighting, kept pushing. Perhaps the greatest task was to remain calm. On the Sierra Nevada, Roglič has been in my wheel for ten kilometers, he let me do all the work, but I didn’t stress,” Evenepoel said Sunday.
“Roglič saved himself, which allowed him to accelerate, but there I won the mental game. I had to keep the pace for a long time, yet I did not lose much when he attacked.”
‘It’s certainly not over yet’
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl’s blue and white “Remco ramparts” beat back Jumbo-Visma’s assault this weekend. Evenepoel’s five teammates rode a wave of “red jersey fever” and braced against the climbing efforts of Chris Harper and Robert Gesink.
Roglič’s and Mas’ offense didn’t deliver in the toughest weekend of this year’s race, even with Evenepoel reeling from a stage 12 crash. The Belgian’s GC momentum tilted off-balance, but didn’t hit the brakes altogether.
Evenepoel sits resolute in red and is racing beyond his age group.
“It’s certainly not over yet, but it’s better to be a minute and a half ahead than behind,” he said. “The last week will be all about freshness and fatigue. In the legs and in the head.”
Evenepoel will be savoring every moment of his rest day Monday.
The 22-year-old is closing in on scoring Belgium’s first grand tour victory since 1978 – but he won’t have it easy along the way.
“The third week will be exciting. We’ll see if there are opportunities to catch up. Primož is in good shape. He’s also very motivated to make the most of it. It’s going to be a great final week,” Jumbo-Visma climber Harper said.
Expect a little mayhem on the roads to Madrid. The Vuelta wouldn’t be the Vuelta without it.