Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) took precious time back from race leader Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) on the final climb of stage 14 of the 2022 Vuelta a España.

‘We are going to make it a great race’: Hope for Remco’s rivals after torrid mountain test

Evenepoel still leads by 1:49, but his 'jour sans' opens up the Vuelta going into the challenging final week. The race is very much on.

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The 2022 Vuelta a España was beginning to look like a Madrid-bound procession for young race leader Remco Evenepoel, who has looked every bit the tried-and-tested grand tour leader since he pulled on his first red jersey on stage 6.

But on stage 14, he showed weakness for the first time, unable to follow when Primož Roglič attacked four kilometres from the summit of La Pandera.

Roglič lets fly. Ilan van Wilder can’t respond, and neither can his leader Evenepoel.

“It was not my best day,” Evenepoel told Sporza. “I didn’t have the best legs and I couldn’t accelerate with Roglic.”

When it was clear that the red jersey was out of legs, let alone able to bring back the defending champion, Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López leapt into action and bridged up to Roglič, leaving Evenepoel to limit his losses.

By the top of the first-category mountain, the race leader had lost 52 seconds to Roglič and López, and Mas had managed his own effort to take back 20 seconds. Though that still means Evenepoel leads the race by 1:49 with seven stages to go.

“I still have a good lead, so there is nothing to panic about,” said Evenepoel, who was visibly feeling the effects of his stage 12 crash as he limped around the finish area. “Now is the time to recover and survive tomorrow. I still had some stiff muscles. It’s normal to still feel it in the days after a fall, but I’m not going to use it as an excuse. I just didn’t have the best legs. Hopefully this was my bad day.”

The race leader and his bodyguards.

The 22-year-old has been leading from the front, literally, since he distanced defending champion Roglič on the first summit finish. Since then, his youthful Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team has been giving a flawless imitation of the Froome-era Sky train, before dropping their leader off for another confident and dominant display that casts a shadow over his elders in the top 10.

The last climb of stage 14 set the scene for Evenepoel’s first grimace of the Vuelta, the first signs of struggle in what has so far been a hugely promising, not to mention dominant performance.

The look of a man who’d like the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

It would have been very easy for the 22-year-old’s head to well and truly droop in that moment, which would have seen him lose significantly more time, but he was not giving up.

After a couple of kilometres of ducking and weaving, as his gap to Roglič reached a minute, a combination of more favourable gradients and a steely-eyed resolve helped the red jersey claw his way back up to Juan Ayuso, with whom he time trialed to the finish line.

Ayuso had rode up to and over Evenepoel after swapping onto a neutral service bike before being retrieved by the red jersey a kilometre later.

Whether this was Evenepoel’s one jour sans or the first of many, one thing is for sure after stage 14: everyone around the red jersey has glimpsed an opportunity. There is hope yet.

“We are going to make it a great race,” Enric Mas promised. “I wanted to make a difference on that final climb. That’s why I went with Roglič. It is clear that he is recovering well, because if it’s true that he’s hardly cycled after the Tour de France, he will probably only get better this Vuelta.”

With Sunday’s altitude finish at Sierra Nevada, then a trilogy of tough stages to end the final week, there are at least four chances to take more time out of Evenepoel, and you can bet each and every one will be taken now that a chink has opened in the Belgian’s armour.

Second and third on GC hunt down time.

“I feel better and better in this Vuelta a España, hopefully we can keep this trend,” said Roglič, whose team did a great deal of pace setting on the way to the final climb. “The tour is still long, but we want to make the race.”

The Vuelta is now looking like being anything but a procession, its young leader bursting with the talent and determination to weather his rivals’ blows, which are sure to land in increasing regularity and ferocity as the race wears on.

It’s been repeated to death, but as of Thursday’s stage 18 – the first of that final threatening trilogy, and the same stage number on which he registered a DNS at the 2021 Giro – Evenepoel will be pedalling into uncharted territory, and whether or not it proves relevant, his rivals will be acutely aware of that fact.

And if the outcome of Saturday’s blip is a signature Evenepoel rampage to seal the red jersey once and for all, it will be all the more exciting after showing weakness today.

In short, the Vuelta is still for the taking.

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