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by Dane Cash
September 11, 2019
It may sound crazy, but just one week of Grand Tour racing remains in the 2019 season. Week three of the Vuelta a España is all that’s left between us and eight long months without Grand Tour action.
Hopefully this final week in Spain delivers enough excitement to hold us over until next year’s Giro d’Italia. That’s not a given, considering how in-control Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) looks right now at the Vuelta. Still, there are a few other storylines worth following over the coming days, and hopefully by throwing some predictions into the mix we can make things a bit more entertaining.
Before diving in, let’s check in on my week two predictions – although feel free to jump ahead if you want to skip the back-patting.
1. Jumbo-Visma will take control of the race.
This one proved completely true. Roglic has a commanding lead, Jumbo-Visma riders are constantly visible at the front of the GC group, and Sepp Kuss even grabbed a big stage win on Sunday.
2. Movistar’s leadership situation will remain unsettled (and entertaining).
This was true through week two right up until Nairo Quintana cracked on stage 16. Alejandro Valverde is now the clear best option the team has in the GC battle, but really, Movistar was riding with both Quintana and Valverde as co-leaders through the end of week two, so let’s mark this as a half-credit situation.
3. Breakaway specialists will feast on the coming stages.
This was accurate. Breakaway riders won four of the six road stages in week two, with the sprinters getting no more than one opportunity, as predicted.
4. Tadej Pogacar will work his way into the GC conversation.
The 20-year-old Slovenian is currently in third overall. Assuming you count fighting for a GC podium as being in “the GC conversation,” this one worked out.
5. Bike handling skills will play a role in the GC battle.
Nobody really achieved any big GC gains with daring downhill attacks, and while some riders did hit the deck, fortunately none of the big overall hopefuls saw their GC aspirations ruined by crashes in week two, so this one did not prove true.
Three and a half out of five isn’t bad. Let’s see if we can match or better that in week three …
At this point, tipping Roglic to win the Vuelta just wouldn’t be interesting enough to qualify for inclusion in this highly exclusive list of predictions, so I’m going to up the intrigue factor with a timing element here.
Roglic looks poised to win his first Grand Tour.
Roglic currently leads Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde at the Vuelta with a 2:48 margin. Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates is 3:42 back, with Miguel Ángel López 3:59 down. With such a huge advantage over his rivals, Roglic can afford to play it very safe and ride his own tempo on the high mountain stages ahead, stages 18 and 20. So what if Valverde or Pogacar pick up a minute or even two on him, right?
They won’t. For one, his form is just so far ahead of his rivals’. Everyone expected Roglic to rock the time trial, but he has looked practically unflappable on the steep stuff too most of this race. Plus, he showed on stage 16 that he’s willing to chase down the likes of Pogacar and López even if they get just a small gap on him. It makes sense — the more dominant Roglic is in this Vuelta, the more likely he is to continue getting chances of his own at a crowded Jumbo-Visma team.
Speaking of his team, Jumbo-Visma has been terrific at this race and should continue to be into week three. Only a crash or sudden illness will keep Roglic from taking this overall title with several minutes’ advantage.
2. Everyone else will be racing for second, a battle that Alejandro Valverde will win.
I’d love to see a wild third week with everyone not named Primoz Roglic launching bold attacks trying to overhaul the Slovenian in the battle for red. Stages 18 and 20 certainly have the launching pads for potential long-range strikes. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening.
Valverde has already won a stage at this year’s Vuelta, and he’s on his way to second overall.
The strength that Roglic and his team have shown so far is such that his rivals will likely be completely discouraged from even trying anything. Plus, the rider closest to Roglic in the GC right now – Valverde – just didn’t look great on Monday’s stage 16.
That said, I expect Valverde to hold on to second overall in the last week. It’s not that I expect Pogacar to weaken in week three; Valverde is just too good at following wheels to lose a full minute in the last few stages. Throughout his career he has relied on that ability to nab big wins at the last moment, and also to grind out respectable podium finishes in big races by the boatload.
Hopefully Pogacar will give his all trying to topple Valverde or even Roglic, but that seems unlikely. A potential Grand Tour podium will probably be enough incentive for the Grand Tour debutant to generally avoid making any huge do-or-die attacks that might end up failing and dropping him out of the top three.
3. Sam Bennett will pick up at least two more stage victories.
With all due respect to a fast-rising Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and an injury-bitten Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Team Emirates), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) is the clear top sprinter in this race. The biggest challenge he has faced in this Vuelta has been the breakaways foiling his sprint aspirations, but the final week features three stages that he could potentially win.
Bennett already has two stage wins at this year’s Vuelta.
Looking ahead to possible sprint finales on stages 17, 19, and 21, the Irishman should come away with at least two more stage victories. For starters, he has proven to be the fastest finisher at the Vuelta. On top of that, he has better climbing legs than your typical “pure sprinter.” Predicting sprints in the final week of a Grand Tour can be a bit tricky, what with the fatigue setting into the legs of the sprint stars after two weeks of mountain-climbing, but Bennett should be able to handle that better than most.
He has also shown these past two years that he has developed the racing savvy to turn his speed into bona fide results. Plenty of sprinters can ride their bikes really fast, but Sam Bennett has shown at this point in his career that he can make the most of his opportunities. He has a few coming up, and he will deliver.
4. Carl Fredrik Hagen will hold on to deliver the most unassuming Grand Tour top 10 of the year.
Making his Grand Tour debut in his first season at the WorldTour level with Lotto-Soudal, Carl Fredrik Hagen is currently in ninth overall at the Vuelta a España. The 27-year-old Norwegian has done it with practically no pre-race hype, and without finishing inside the top 10 on a single stage thus far outside his team’s TTT ride.
Hagen has been unassuming but excellent at the Vuelta so far.
He didn’t look great on stage 16, but Hagen does have a gap of 1:25 to 10th-placed Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain-Merida) and nearly three minutes on James Knox of Deceuninck-Quick-Step. That’s a healthy buffer with only two big GC stages left. As unassuming as he’s been, Hagen is on the cusp of a Grand Tour top 10, which is a truly impressive achievement. I bet he pulls it off.
5. Astana and Ineos will make the mountain stages interesting.
The two mountain days ahead will give the breakaway riders a fair chance at a big stage victory, and I’m expecting attackers from Ineos and Astana to be in the thick of the fight. Tao Geoghegan Hart landed top-three finishes on back-to-back stages in week two, and with no GC spot to protect, he and his Ineos teammates will continue to put all their energy towards going on the attack.
Fuglsang has a stage win already, but Astana will be on the hunt for more.
As for Astana, it’s already shaping up to be a successful Vuelta thanks to Jakob Fuglsang’s stage win, the team’s opening TTT victory, and López’s strong GC ride — but after disappointments at both the Giro and the Tour, this team won’t be packing it in just yet. There are so many strong riders here for Astana that they can probably afford to keep hunting breakaways with at least one of Fuglsang, Luis León Sánchez, Ion Izagirre, or Gorka Izagirre without giving up too much support for López.