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What a way to close out the Grand Tour season.
A stretch of thrilling Grand Tour racing is rolling into its finale in much the same way things have proceeded throughout the past few months. Just as they were with two stages to go at the Tour de France and at the Giro d’Italia, things are incredibly tight at the Vuelta a España as the last two days of racing loom.
Saturday’s stage 17 will be the decisive one, with a finale that was tailor-made for GC action. Riders will take on the second-category Alto de la Garganta starting at around 38 kilometers to go. After a short descent and then a very short but steep cobbled climb on the run-in, they’ll hit the challenging categoría especial Alto de la Covatilla, with its 7.1% gradient and a particularly brutal midsection where the gradient jumps up into the double digits. That’s a fitting battleground for a group of GC contenders that have given us a close showdown so far—so close, in fact, that it seemed worthwhile to take a moment to put this year’s many great GC battles into context to show just how incredibly tight they’ve been.
As of Friday night in Spain, Richard Carapaz was sitting only 45 seconds off of Primoz Roglic’s lead and Hugh Carthy was also in striking distance at 53 seconds back. That 45-second margin between first and second at the Vuelta right now is as close as it has been with two stages left to go in the race since 2015, when Tom Dumoulin was holding onto a six-second lead (which he would lose) to Fabio Aru. Only the 2013 Vuelta, where Chris Horner led Vincenzo Nibali by three seconds with two stages to go, has been closer this decade.
However you might feel about that 2013 result, from a close-as-heck-GC-battle perspective, 2013 and 2015 are pretty fine company for this year’s Vuelta to be in.
But wait, there’s more!
The Roglic-Carapaz-Carthy battle is the third of three fantastic GC battles on the year. Just how fantastic have this year’s Grand Tours been? Glad you asked!
Things certainly feel like they’ve been extremely close throughout all three Grand Tours, and the numbers really back that up. You’ll recall that with two stages to go at this year’s awesome Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar was sitting 57 seconds behind Roglic. And you may recall that with two stages to go at this year’s awesome Giro d’Italia, Jai Hindley was a mere 12 seconds behind Wilco Kelderman, with eventual winner Tao Geoghegan Hart only three seconds behind that.
With all that in mind, how about this stat for you: The combined GC margin between first and second with two stages to go at all three Grand Tours this year stands at a grand total of just 1:54. That is as tight as that number has been in a decade, and going any farther back than that you’re working around at least a few names whose results were ultimately stripped.
That combined margin between first and second across all three Grand Tours with two stages to go was tighter in 2010 from the perspective of live viewers, but things played out a little differently in the end. With two stages to go at the 2010 Tour, Andy Schleck was eight seconds behind an Alberto Contador whose victory was later stripped. David Arroyo was 51 seconds behind eventual Ivan Basso at the Giro (that win did stand at least), while Ezequiel Mosquera, later stripped of his runner-up result, was 50 seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali at the Vuelta.
In other words, this year’s Grand Tour season has seen the tightest battles of at least what you might call this current era of pro road racing.
Considering how things were looking for the state of this year’s Grand Tours only a few months ago, that’s a pretty awesome turnaround.
It’s been a wacky, up-and-down season for the world of bike racing. For a while there, it seemed like the 2020 season might never pick back up again after racing was halted in March.
Instead, we’ve had a chance to watch not one, not two, but three fantastic GC battles, culminating in this weekend’s final showdown at the Vuelta.
However things play out, it’s been a real treat so far, and an all the more welcome one in an otherwise exceptionally challenging year for the sport.