After dominating La Vuelta for almost two weeks, Remco Evenepoel showed his first glimpses of weakness today on Sierra la Pandera. The Belgian was dropped on the undulating climb after a Roglič attack, losing 48 seconds on Stage 14. It is bad news for Evenepoel, as tomorrow will be even harder, with the Queen Stage 15 finishing on Sierra Nevada, a 60 minute high altitude climb.
Stage 14 was another chance for a breakaway. As there were no climbs at the first part of the course, the formation of the breakaway took a long time, more than an hour. After countless fights, a 10-man front group containing Richard Carapaz, the pre-stage favourite, was formed. Jay Vine, Mark Padun and other potentially strong climbers tried to get in but were unsuccessful.
Carapaz already won on Peñas Blancas two days ago and was looking for his second stage victory in this Vuelta. The stage finished with the Sierra de La Pandera climb, which included a steep 2 kilometre section in the middle, a perfect launching point for Carapaz.
The biggest threat to Carapaz’ victory was Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl who was not letting the breakaway obtain more than four minutes. Carapaz was not a GC threat to Remco Evenepoel as he was almost 14 minutes back in the GC and lost 3:15 minutes intentionally on the previous stage. Evenepoel’s team keeping the gap so close was surprising with the Belgian having such a big lead on GC, so perhaps they wanted another stage victory.
It was surprising to see other breakaway riders working so well together with Carapaz. Luis Leon Sanchez, Clement Champoussin and Alexey Lutsenko were the biggest potential threats to Carapaz, with Champoussin being probably the hardest working climber in the group. There were some attempts to get away on the shallow 5% climb before Pandera by Lutsenko and Sanchez, with Sanchez getting a small gap. Carapaz before the Sierra de la Pandera climb bridged to Sanchez and then started pacing on the final climb with Sanchez refusing to work, later dropping the Spanish veteran on the steep section of Pandera.
Meanwhile in the peloton, Jumbo-Visma took over from Quick-Step and paced very hard with Robert Gesink on the shallow Puerto de las Villares climb (10km, 5.5%). Jumbo-Visma wanted to test Evenepoel’s legs and expose some potential weakness, particularly in such hot conditions. Evenepoel crashed hard on Stage 12 and injured his hip, which still has visible bandaging two days later.
Curiously, INEOS paced on the short false flat section between Villares and the Pandera climb, presumably to better position Carlos Rodriguez, but in that way they helped close the gap to Carapaz, who was strongest in the breakaway and with a slender lead of just over two minutes. Once the GC group reached the final climb, Jumbo-Visma were interested in making it as hard as possible. Chris Harper again showed a strong performance in hot conditions. The Australian was great on Peñas Blancas on Stage 12 and today was again performing at a high level.
After Harper finished, Ilan van Wilder was the last one to pull from the domestiques. Evenepoel’s teammate made an extremely hard pace on the irregular slopes. Van Wilder maybe went too hard as after his pull Primož Roglič attacked on a steep section of the climb. Evenepoel did not follow Roglič and set his own tempo. Every GC contender at the first moment stayed behind Evenepoel but it turned out that the red jersey was not just riding his own pace, he was struggling. Lopez, Mas, Rodriguez, Arensman, Ayuso and Almeida later overtook Evenepoel who was left alone, fighting up the steep gradients.
Quick-Step repeated UAE’s mistake on Col du Granon in the Tour de France, pacing too hard for their leader whilst setting up a rival to attack who no longer had any domestiques remaining. However Evenepoel did not crack as hard as Pogačar. With 2.2 kilometres left Evenepoel’s gap to Roglič was 39 seconds according to time gaps, largely gained in the first three to four minutes of the Slovenian’s attack.
Whilst the gap to Carapaz had shrunk at the same time as Roglič initial attack, Roglič slowed down in the last part of the climb, with Mas and Lopez bridging to his wheel and drafting. Mas as usual rode passively but as it turned out he did not have the legs to pull or attack and he dropped himself in the last 1500 metres, whilst Lopez surged to the front to pace.
Carapaz held on to win the stage in impressive fashion by a narrow eight seconds. Evenepoel lost 48 seconds to Roglič and still is the leader of the race. With 2.2 kilometres left Evenepoel’s gap to Roglič was 39 seconds according to the TV time gaps. Evenepoel finished 48 seconds back, which means he did not lose that much in the shallower final to Roglič, who was pulling with Lopez.
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Roglič and Lopez did the second fastest time on Sierra de la Pandera. They lost only 9 seconds to the 4-time Vuelta winner Roberto Heras, who in 2002 was riding for US Postal Service. The w/kg today on Sierra de la Pandera are not high compared to other performances in this Vuelta as when Pandera is approached from the north (as it was today) it is a continuation of the shallow Puerto de las Villares climb (10km, 5.5%) and more closely resembles the end of a ~45 minute effort. The hot conditions and irregular gradient were also not conducive to peak performances.
Tomorrow is the queen stage of Vuelta, which will finish on Sierra Nevada, a 60 minute high altitude climb. The main favourite will be Miguel Angel Lopez, who is the greatest climber on 50+minute climbs in the 21st century. Lopez already won queen stages in the 2020 Tour on Col de la Loze and 2021 Vuelta on Gamoniteiru.
The last time Sierra Nevada was used in the Vuelta was in 2017. Lopez won that day, beating Ilnur Zakarin by 36 seconds. This will be a different Sierra Nevada accent, which begins with Alto de Hazallanas (7.3 km, 9.6%) rather than from Monachil as in 2017. This will be the hardest Sierra Nevada ascent that can be used without going even higher on closed service roads (the initial plan of the Vuelta)..
Before Sierra Nevada there will be the steep Alto del Purche climb which starts close to Granada amidst forecasted hot conditions. Presumably Jumbo-Visma will try again to take time on Evenepoel tomorrow, with the heat, high altitude and Evenepoel’s first sign of weakness sure to buoy their confidence. Astana should also help, as they have quite a strong team with Pronskiy and De la Cruz and Lopez should be given every opportunity to take the stage victory tomorrow..