Take yourself back to winter 2018. The organisers of the Vuelta Espana are putting the finishing touches to the 2019 route and the atmosphere is tense at Vuelta HQ.
“What about stage two,” offers race director Javier Guillen, slightly exasperated, “we could call that a sprint stage?”
“But boss, its full of, y’know…hills.”
The media script for stage two, on this unarguably hilly stage was, somehow, ‘which sprinters can get over the climbs and assemble for a bunch sprint?’ After one hundred and seventy odd kilometres of considerable up and down the Alto de Puig Llorenca, a second category climb, would play the role of chisel.
It would chip away at the marble block of sprinters to reveal a small handful of perfectly formed fast finishers.
At least that’s what the script said. The Puig Llorenca more accurately resembled a lump hammer; three kilometres with ramps of 14% and more. Whether because of the heat, the attrition of the day, or too many free tapas at the feed zone, this steep climb decimated the peloton.
Riders who can normally climb ground to a near halt, and anyone with anything resembling a sprinter’s physique had no chance. Hugh Carthy, skinny mountain man, attacked and then faded, leaving General Classification contenders at the head of the race.
Alejandro Valverde crested the summit first, and a twenty-odd kilometre duel to the finish began. This is not a sprinters day, it’s a GC day, they seemed to be saying. Time will be gained and lost.
Two elite, exclusive groups formed, valid VIP passes only, and the gravity of the situation began to reveal itself. At the head of the race were Quintana, Roglic, Uran, Nieve, Roche and Aru. Not sprinters. The opposite of sprinters.
Chasing were the likes of race leader Lopez, Latour, Chaves, Kelderman, and Bennett.
As our half dozen escapees reached the finish town of Calpe we strapped ourselves in for a tense, testy, six up sprint finish between a group of largely wafer thin climbers. All geared up to not so much knock lumps out of each other as finesse and finangle, like a street fight in a musical.Embed from Getty Images
But, mid-strap, Quintana leapt clear. One of those moves where the very moment he accelerates you can see no-one will catch him. A collective sigh, almost audible through the telly, and the rest knew they were fighting over scraps.
For Nico Roche, should he play his cards right, those scraps would find him in the form of the race leaders red jersey; in nipping second place, five seconds behind a (dare I say!?) rejuvenated Quintana, he seized the jersey from an isolated and brow-beaten Lopez, thirty-odd seconds back down the road.
A victory for fans of journeymen, multi-nationality, un-placeably accented, famously fathered pro cyclists everywhere. It’s a niche category and Roche is top dog.
So, two stages in, and this Vuelta has been turned on it’s head (yesterday, as Primoz Roglic shed big time) and then back again (as he scrabbled it all back today).
God only knows what the next nineteen stages have in store.