“He’s not at 100 per cent,” the Jumbo-Visma sports directors had warned at the outset of the Vuelta a España, trying to dampen the expectation surrounding their leader and the winner of the three previous Spanish Grand Tours, Primož Roglič. The Slovenian had been withdrawn from the Tour de France due to a back problem but any concerns of lingering injury were put to bed on stage four.
After Jumbo-Visma won the opening team time trial and placed three different riders in the red jersey over the opening four days, they weren’t just about to let someone else take it, especially when they had a rider in Roglič clearly on top form and ready to fight for a record-equalling fourth Vuelta title.
The final kilometre of stage four in the Basque Country, the first day in Spain following the Dutch Gran Partidas, was a tough one, tougher than many had thought. An average gradient of around 8 per cent greeted riders for the final 1,000 metres to the line.
Movistar had led into the final kilometre, Alejandro Valverde lurking, with Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers) moving his way back up after spending some time spinning at the back of the pack on the previous, final classified climb. On that previous ascent, the Puerto de Herrera, upon which Julian Alaphilippe and Roglič surged to the fore, the latter took three bonus seconds, a habit he often finds hard to resist.
But back to the flamme rouge. EF Education EasyPost’s Hugh Carthy took over from Movistar, tracked by Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën), but no-one behind truly wanted to commit to an attack this early.
But then an injection of impetus, Roglič snuck past slowly-closing doors before the hulking figure of Mads Pedersen followed through gaps that seemed far too small for the big Dane.
His diminutive Trek-Segafredo teammate Kenny Elissonde led the pack as Pedersen swatted Enric Mas out of second wheel before Roglič launched around the final bend, a prolonged sprint, with Pedersen throwing everything at it but unable to claw back the Slovenian who took his 10th Vuelta stage win and another red jersey.
“That was the plan, that we changed every time the guy with the red jersey,” Roglič said after the finish, his Jumbo-Visma teammate Sam Oomen having already cut a slightly dejected figure in front of the TV cameras. Maybe stage four had been earmarked for the Dutchman to leave with the lead of the race. “Today was my lucky day and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
On the stage, Pedersen took a third consecutive second place, doing his best impression of Wout van Aert at this summer’s Tour de France, with Enric Mas third, proof of how difficult this final was.
Roglič now leads the race by 13 seconds over American teammate Sepp Kuss, with the Ineos Grenadiers triplet of Ethan Hayter, Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan in third, fourth and fifth on 26 seconds. Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s Remco Evenepoel sits sixth, a further one second adrift.
Kuss bookended the 12-man group who all finished on the same time as Roglič, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Wilco Kelderman and Jai Hindley both in there as well as Ben O’Connor, Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) leading the next group through seven seconds later.
“I felt really good, I just can never perfect small bunch sprints,” O’Connor reflected. “Sometimes I need to take some more confidence to take the front but I can be happy, legs are good,” clearly having bounced back from his injury-tarnished Tour de France.
“It was perfect for him,” the Australian continued of Roglič and the finish of stage four. “Realistically, I don’t think anyone is better than him in a small uphill bunch finish.”
“It’s really just the beginning of the race but as they say it’s better to have some seconds in front than behind,” the Slovenian added. “It was already a hard pace all day, super fast stage, in the final there was an opportunity to fight for the stage win. I had the legs, I gave it a go.”
Expect Roglič to give it a go again and again this Vuelta, and he would now likely prefer it if no other rider, let alone a Jumbo-Visma teammate, wore the red jersey over the next three weeks.