Stage 6 brought the second mountain test of this Vuelta, with Remco Evenepoel losing some time on the steep Javalambre climb but narrowly remaining ahead of his main rivals in GC. Jumbo-Visma had a wonderful day, as Sepp Kuss won from a very strong breakaway and almost become the race leader whilst Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard were the strongest from the GC group.
It was a hard 183 kilometre day with a steep finish up Alto de Javalambre (7.35 km, 9.52%). 4,000 metres of total elevation gain and hot weather made this a big GC day despite the solitary Category 1 climb.
In the first half of the stage, before the TV cameras were rolling, a huge breakaway formed with multiple fringe GC threats. Sepp Kuss, Lenny Martinez, Mikel Landa, Marc Soler, Wout Poels, Romain Bardet, Steff Cras, Hugh Carthy, Augusto Einer Rubio, Santiago Buitrago, David de la Cruz and many more strong names were in this star-packed breakaway all of whom on 2 minutes or less behind Evenepoel. Unfortunately Jay Vine crashed out of the race early and had to abandon La Vuelta, a big blow for UAE Team Emirates.
The breakaway gained enough lead to make one of the riders the new virtual race leader, the young French talent Lenny Martinez. He and Sepp Kuss were the favourites for the stage victory as they had not lost much time to Remco Evenepoel in the previous stages and showed great performance on the first climbing day in Andorra. Almost a four minute lead before the steep slopes was enough for them to gain multiple minutes over the top GC riders. Thymen Arensman in the GC group before Javalambre spent 4,153 kilojoules for 4:29h, which is 13.41 kj/kg/h. A hard day in the saddle but not too intense compared to a Grand Tour Queen stage like Col de la Loze this year in the Tour de France, where the riders raced at around 15 kj/kg/h before the final 10km from Meribel.
Meanwhile in the GC group, Soudal – Quick Step were not pacing particularly hard with Cattaneo, Vervaeke and Hirt in the train. They set a steady pace like INEOS (as Sky) did in the past, reducing the GC group to around 20 riders. However when Roglič accelerated from the group, Remco Evenepoel was distanced immediately, together with Geraint Thomas and it was clear that Quick-Step had been riding at a comfortable pace for the Belgian as he was not feeling particularly well on the day. Evenepoel crashed hard after his stage victory in Andorra and that might have cost him something in such an attritional stage.
With Roglič in front, Jonas Vingegaard had the luxury to draft behind Juan Ayuso, Enric Mas and Cian Uijtdebroeks who all were chasing the Slovenian. The Jumbo-Visma GC stars today unveiled their multiple leader strategy and it worked to great effect.
In the breakaway group it also was the Jumbo-Visma show, as Sepp Kuss accelerated and flew past everyone, untouchable after such a hard day and heading to his second La Vuelta stage victory. Lenny Martinez was the biggest threat for Kuss’ red jersey hopes as he worked with Romain Bardet in the second group.
While the cameras were showing Kuss and Roglič, Vingegaard bridged the gap to his Slovenian teammate with Mas on his wheel, whilst the Hungarian champion Attila Valter was waiting for them as a satellite rider to give a pull for a few minutes. Jumbo-Visma could not have wanted for more from the stage and they were absolutely dominating at this point.
After Valter finished his job, Roglič and Vingegaard were riding together without Mas on their wheel like in Trofeo Baracchi. Roglič looked stronger than Vingegaard who very likely is not in his Tour de France shape as it only finished over a month ago before La Vuelta whilst Roglič has had the ideal Vuelta preparation. In the end they seemed to lose time against their rivals in the last kilometre, as Juan Ayuso almost caught them and Uijtdebroeks and Mas were not far away. Evenepoel regained strength after getting dropped, like on the Sierra la Pandera stage in 2022,and did not lose even a minute in the end.
Sepp Kuss won from the breakaway but he slowed down a bit in the final metres and gave high fives to the crowd. Lenny Martinez finished 26 seconds behind in second place and beat Kuss’ by 8 seconds in the GC and became the new red jersey. Evenepoel lost only 32 seconds to Roglič and Vingegaard meaning he remains as the highest rider from the GC favourites with Mas, Vingegaard, Roglič, Ayuso, Uijtdebroeks and Almeida all being within 30 seconds. The gaps are still close and nothing is decided, just like last year when Evenepoel had a few bad days. Martinez and Kuss are almost 3 minutes ahead of the big GC riders but it will be hard for them both hold this gap with the 25 kilometre time trial on Stage 10 and many hard stages to come.
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The ᵉW/Kg were not high on Javalambre as Soudal-Quick Step did not pace it hard and Roglič attacked late in the climb. Roglič and Vingegaard pushed 6.32 ᵉW/Kg for 23:10 min on the steep part of the climb. Evenepoel did 6.18 ᵉW/Kg for 23:42, similar to the stage winner Kuss’ 6.12 ᵉW/Kg for 23:54. Miguel Angel Lopez in La Vuelta 2019 was 31 seconds faster than Roglič with 6.51 ᵉW/Kg on this climb, as Roglič on that stage lost 12 seconds to the flying Colombian. Kuss from the GC group in 2019 performed very well finishing together with Nairo Quintana and being faster by 21 seconds than from the breakaway in 2023.
GC Kuss is one of the best climbers in the world and in theory he might be capable of finishing very high in the GC especially as he thrives on the hard stages to come. Kuss might become the race leader after the Xorret de Cati rampas inhumanas on Stage 8 but on the the 25.8 km ITT on Stage 10 he might lose two or even three minutes to Evenepoel. After that there are no time-trials but Kuss is a Jumbo-Visma rider and with Roglič and Vingegaard on the team someone must work at the front of the GC group on climbs and there might be not enough freedom for the American Eagle who is doing his third Grand Tour in 2023, with no signs of slowing down yet.