There were doubts about Remco Evenepoel’s form after his lost 48 seconds on Sierra de La Pandera to Primož Roglič on Stage 14 prior to the Sierra Nevada mountain top finish before the second rest day. Despite it being the toughest parcours in this Vuelta a España, Evenepoel successfully defended against Roglič and enters the third week in the leader’s jersey with a solid margin.
It was the queen stage of La Vuelta 2022. Evenepoel on the previous day did crack on Sierra de La Pandera climb and the main question was how good his legs will be today. Primož Roglič before the stage was 1:49min from Evenepoel in the GC. After his stage 14 performance the Slovenian was the favourite to win La Vuelta, according to bookmakers.
Compared to previous days, this time the breakaway formed early. It was a huge 29-man group with many strong climbers such as Richard Carapaz, Jay Vine, Jai Hindley, Louis Meintjes, Marc Soler and many more. Thymen Arensman was the highest rider in the GC, 11th and +9:14 min from Evenepoel.
The GC favourite teams also sent satellite riders in the break. Jumbo-Visma had Oomen and Dennis in the leading group, while Quick-Step had Vervaeke and Masnada. It was clear that after the steep start of Sierra Nevada climb, the satellite riders could have been very helpful on shallow 5% gradients – to get a bigger gap or limit losses.
Quick-Step needed to control the gap to the breakaway but they were lucky that AG2R joined them to help, riding to protect Ben O’Connor’s 10th place in the GC as multiple riders in the breakaway like Arensman, Hindley, Meintjes, De La Cruz were close behind him in the GC.
AG2R helped to reduce the gap from six to three minutes before the Alto del Purche. It was bad news for Jumbo-Visma, as this meant that their satellite riders would likely be caught early before the shallow part of Sierra Nevada. In the perfect scenario Oomen and Dennis would have waited for Roglič right after the steep Alto de Hazallanas section to pace on the shallow gradients if Evenepoel had been dropped.
The breakaway was not cooperating that well before the Alto del Purche, with Lawson Craddock attacking solo to get ahead before the steep climb. AG2R paced very hard at the bottom of Alto del Purche but they went too hard at the start as Bob Jungels later did not have the strength to set a hard pace for the whole climb, with the breakaway taking about a minute back on the peloton. Vine even bridged to Craddock and took the maximum KOM points, increasing his lead in the KOM competition.
Dennis and Oomen had been dropped from the breakaway, so Jumbo-Visma’s original plan was not going to work. The two waited for the peloton in order to pace the start of the Sierra Nevada instead. In the end, Oomen took a gap into the base of Hazallanas and paced too hard, dropping Dennis, Roglic and Harper, with the latter bridging Evenepoel back to Roglic. The chaos that ensued did not really help Jumbo-Visma put Evenepoel under pressure and only served to distance Ayuso, Almeida and Rodriguez.
In the perfect scenario, Jumbo-Visma would have sent Chris Harper in the breakaway. The Australian has been performing really well in the second week, doing huge pulls for Roglič on steep climbs. Harper probably would have been strong enough to stay in the main breakaway so he could be in front of the peloton after the steep Hazallanas section had finished. Of course, in the ideal world Sepp Kuss’ would have been the perfect satellite rider but the American fell ill in the first week and had to abandon the race.
Evenepoel was looking strong and did not show any weakness on the steep gradients, seemingly recovered after yesterday’s loss. After Harper finished pulling, Roglič continued to pace on the steep slopes but the Belgian was untouchable. Evenepoel later pulled an Uno reverse card and started pacing himself, testing Roglič’s legs. Quick-Step even had Louis Vervaeke waiting for Evenepoel after Hazallanas.
Meanwhile, in the breakaway Vine and Craddock got caught before Sierra Nevada. Marc Soler who already had a stage win in the bag, attacked right before the start of the climb. The Spaniard increased the gap by a minute but later started slowing down. With 10km to go, the GC group was 2:10 min to Soler and 1:20min to the second group with De La Cruz, Hindley, Uran, Meintjes, Vine, Arensman and Mäder.
The tempo set by Vervaeke was not fast enough for Lopez who attacked on the shallow gradients. Evenepoel did not care about Lopez who was six minutes behind in the GC. Enric Mas attacked after the Colombian made his move and bridged to him. Later Lopez’s teammate De La Cruz dropped back from the breakaway and pulled Lopez, who was seeming to be struggling on the Spaniard’s wheel after a hard effort.
The attacks by Lopez and Mas were bad news for Joao Almeida, Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodriguez, who were struggling on the steep sections and later almost caught Evenepoel’s group with help from Carapaz on the shallow gradients. Evenepoel ignored Roglič on his wheel and set his tempo after Vervaeke’s legs was empty.
Thymen Arensman knew that he must attack before Lopez and Mas bridged to the second group and accelerated after Soler. Arensman was fast on the shallow gradients above 2000 metres sea level, more suited to a rider of his stature than the start on Hazallanas. He quickly caught and later dropped Soler, powering away to win his first Grand Tour stage.
Mas and Lopez exchanged turns in an uncoordinated fashion, neither improving a position on GC but Mas able to finish 21 seconds ahead of Roglič.
The Slovenian in the final kilometres successfully attacked Evenepoel who had been pacing for a long time, while Roglič was sitting in his draft. Evenepoel lost only 15 seconds to Roglič and it was a big win for Evenepoel as he proved after yesterday’s performance that he still has something left in the tank.
Evenepoel is now 1 minute and 34 seconds ahead of Roglič before the third week, which will be relatively easy with no hard mountain top finishes present to make big gaps. It will be extremely hard for Roglič to win his fourth consecutive La Vuelta if Evenepoel remains at this shape.
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The stage winner Thymen Arensman did an estimated 5.51 w/kg for 61 minutes and 13 seconds. He was slower by 2 minutes and 7 seconds than the fastest GC man Enric Mas. Evenepoel, despite finishing 36 seconds behind Mas, did an estimated 5.71 w/kg, which is is 0.01 w/kg higher than Mas due the Spaniard drafting much more than the Belgian.
Arensman lost the majority of the time to the GC group on the steep Alto de Hazallanas climb in the first part of Sierra Nevada. He was almost two minutes slower on the steep slopes than Evenepoel, Roglič, Mas, Lopez and O’Connor but was incredibly fast on the second part.
Remco Evenepoel did a good effort on Sierra Nevada and proved that he can perform at altitude and long climbs. The pure w/kg number on Sierra Nevada is not that high due to the altitude and perhaps the hot conditions. The stage was not particularly hard for the GC group before the final climb as they did 12.22 kj/kg/h for 3h:30min. In peak condition, Roglic can go faster, as he showed on Col de la Loze after a harder stage.