Blazin' Saddles: The 2019 Vuelta awards – Roglic, QuickStep, Madrazo, Movistar & more
With Primoz Roglic crowned winner of La Vuelta in a Slovenian sandwich on the podium with compatriot Tadej Pogacar the other side of the world champion Alejandro Valverde, it's time to look back at the best moments of the 74th edition of the last – but in this case, not the least – Grand Tour of the season.
Entering the race, the general consensus was that the overall win would either go to one of the more experienced Colombians or that man Roglic – and in a Vuelta deprived of the top-tier talent, it was the 29-year-old former ski-unmentionable who ended on top of the podium in only his fifth Grand Tour.
Without further ado, let's look at some of the stand-out moments from a memorable three weeks in Spain (and two days in France and one in Andorra).
Most inauspicious start: Jumbo-Visma
They won the TTTs in both the Giro and Tour, so the Vuelta's Benidorm leg-stretcher was always going to be a doddle – until someone burst their paddling pool…
Most unlikely stage win: Quintana in Stage 2
The pint-sized Colombian climber winning a flat finish off the back of a difficult Tour de France and while riding not only against the rest of the peloton, but seemingly against his own team…? Pull the other one.
The red herring award: Miguel Angel Lopez
Time and time again, Astana tore the peloton apart and whittled down the GC group to just a handful of odds and sods; time and time again, Lopez rode clear of his rivals; time and again, Superman met his kryptonite in whomever was wearing green – be it Roglic, Pogacar, Valverde or Quintana.
Surely no other rider has worn the red jersey on three separate occasions and yet not only failed to wear it on the final day of the race, but has even dropped off the final podium. Step forward, Lopez, a rider whose ceiling seems to be third place on a Grand Tour, regardless of who is racing in it.
Pivotal moment of the race: gravel storm
To be fair to Lopez, for the first week or so he looked very much in command of the Vuelta, and his (or his team's) decision to concede each red jersey after just one day looked inspired, verging on the audacious.
When he was launched up the road by teammate Omar Fraile and then bridged over, one by one, to Gorka Izagirre and Jakob Fuglsang, it looked like Lopez would win Stage 9 in Andorra while wresting the red jersey back from Nicolas Edet's shoulders. It would have been his fourth stint– and with the time trial still to come – perhaps not his last in red.
But it never happened. The sudden hailstorm and showers momentarily ended the live coverage – and when images came back, the much-anticipated 4km gravel section off the back of the Alto de Engolasters, was over. Quintana was busy attacking, Marc Soler was throwing a wobbly, and Tadej Podacar was about to throw a cat among the pigeons.
But Lopez was nowhere to be seen. He later crossed the line at Cortel d'Encamp a minute down on winner Pogacar, with his arms and knees cut. Later it emerged that he'd crashed in the gravel sector with compatriot Sergio Higuita – but not after seeing his lead crumble in the rain.
Had the heavens not opened, who knows what may have happened. Although it's worth mentioning that Roglic also crashed on the gravel – reportedly colliding with a motorcycle before recovering to take third place. So, perhaps it was not as pivotal as first thought.
Best rider: Primoz Roglic
It would be churlish not to name the man who won the whole thing - even if any designs he has on a long rein may well be undermined by the youthful compatriot who joined him on the final podium. Still, the Jumbo-Visma all-rounder won the Vuelta the same way that Simon Yates did a year earlier: after coming very close to winning the Giro, he returned with a better game plan and a better team.
Despite crashes in the opening time trial, in the muddy gravel and during that nasty pile-up in Stage 19 which caused such controversy, the red jersey emerged on top of the pile, It will be interesting to see how he dovetails with Tom Dumoulin over the next few years. But for now, el primo es Roglic.
Best sprinter: Sam Bennett
The Irish champion may have notched the same number of wins as his rival Fabio Jakobsen, but he was head and shoulders clear of his fellow sprinters. Not only did he win two stages and finish runner-up on four occasions, he did that most unlikely of things in the Vuelta and come close to winning a green jersey points classification better suited to the climbing all-rounders.
Most tenacious stage win: Angel Madrazo
In his third day out of four in the day's break, Angel "McLovin" Madrazo was almost knocked off his bike by how own directeur sportif ahead of a final climb that witnessed more yo-yoing than an American rap song.
Acting as a foil for Burgos-BH teammate Jetse Bol on the final climb of Stage 5, Madrazo was dropped and fought back more regularly than Steve Smith batting against the English cricket team – before the elastic finally snapped with a couple of kilometres of the Alto de Javalambre remaining.
But Madrazo was only getting warmed up: somehow he found the reserves to reel in both Bol and Spaniard Jose Herrada of Cofidis inside the final half-kilometre before riding to the biggest win of his career – all while wearing the polka dot jersey of his national race.
What a day for the former Movistar rider – sure makes up for that dodgy fake ID of his…
Best wildcard team: Burgos-BH
This was a tight call. After all, Cofidis made up for Herrada's disappointment in having his pocket picked by Madrazo and Bol by seeing his brother, Jesus, ride to victory one day later in Stage 6. This was then capped by Edet's day in red after the Frenchman was part of that big break in Stage 8.
And then there's Euskadi-Murias who got in on the act by seeing their Basque rider Mikel Iturria emotionally win Stage 11 deep in the Basque Country, in Urdax-Dantxarinea, after holding on in nail-biting fashion. The man he denied that day was Jonathan Lastra of Caja Rural-Seguros RGA – the Spanish wildcards who also saw Alex Aranburu finish second on two occasions.
But if Madrazo's stirring Stage 5 win, long stint in polka dots and breakaway classification prize are not enough to clinch it for Burgos-BH, then Jesus Ezquerra's successful marriage proposal to his girlfriend during the final stage to Madrid sways the balance. It definitely made up for Ezquerra's previous three weeks – when 29th place in Stage 2 was his best finish – during which he was otherwise, er, engaged.
Best stage: Stage 17 to Guadalajara
It has to be that day in the crosswinds, doesn't it? A day when seven Deceuninck-QuickStep riders made the split; a day when none of the top five on GC were present in the move, but Nairo Quintana was; a day when even the gruppetto, 33 minutes adrift, came home more than half-an-hour ahead of schedule.
It was also a day when Philippe Gilbert delivered the second of his two wins, when QuickStep placed four in the top 10, and James Knox rose up the standings to eighth.
The dinner for one award: Max Richeze
The only QuickStep rider not to make the split in that day of crosswind carnage, the Argentine may have felt like a bit of a gooseberry at the celebrations later on.
Best team: Deceuninck-QuickStep
Jumbo-Visma deserve a huge amount of credit for bouncing back from losing Steven Kruijswijk early and guiding Roglic to victory. With the American Sepp Kuss also adding a magnificent solo win at the Santuario del Acebo, the team came of age to secure their first Grand Tour scalp before Tom Dumoulin has even donned the yellow-and-black kit.
But for consistency and excellence across the board, this award goes to the Wolfpack. With both Gilbert and Jakobsen taking two wins, Remi Cavagna adding a third, James Knox coming so close to a top 10 finish in his first completed Grand Tour, and Tim 'The Tractor' Declercq being a beast on a daily basis, the Belgian team were a cut above the rest.
And had it not been for the Jumbo-Visma support car, they could have won the opening time trial, too. Instead, they were just two seconds down to Astana in Benidorm.
Special mention, too, to EF Education First, who turned things round from losing Rigoberto Uran, Hugh Carthy and Tejay Van Garderen in Stage 6 with a maiden Grand Tour stage win for Sergio Higuita in Stage 18.
Best Grand Tour debut: Tadej Pogacar
Just 20 seconds were separating the four best riders going into the only time trial of the race – and the Slovenian tyro was not one of them. His victory in Andorra has put the 20-year-old up to sixth at 1'42", a deficit which swelled to 3'05" after Roglic's TT masterclass.
But the UAE Team Emirates rider came into the Vuelta with a view to improving over the course of the race – and so it proved, with Pogacar making light of his inexperience to win two more key mountain stages, secure the white jersey and knock Quintana off the final podium (after an hour-long, 40km solo break deep in the third week).
Pow! Take that, old generation and South America – there's a new Slovenian kid on the block. One who was only five years old when Valverde first/last won the Vuelta.
Other honourable mentions must go to stage winners Higuita and Fabio Jakobsen, as well as Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard of Ag2R-La Mondiale: a year ago, Bouchard was a trainee while working shifts in Decathalon, now the 27-year-old had won the polka dot jersey in his first three-week race. Chapeau!
The got-there-in-the-end award: Jakob Fuglsang
Having been one of the star riders of the season, with victories in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine, it came as a surprise that it was not until the Dane won Stage 16 in the mist at La Cubilla that Fuglsang had finally picked up his first stage scalp in 14 Grand Tours. Better late than never, eh?
Gnarliest injury: Willie Smit
The litany of wounds sustained by Uran in that high-speed crash in Stage 6 was as horrific as the list was extensive, but the award goes to a rider who somehow managed to pedal on to Madrid despite apparently getting a blind man sew his knee up with a rusty needle… while drunk.
The MIA award: Team Ineos
Let's be honest, Katusha-Alpecin, Dimension Data, Groupama-FDJ, CCC Team, Trek-Segafredo, Sunweb and even Lotto Soudal and Mitchelton-Scott had pretty bad races. But for a second Grand Tour in the same season, Team Ineos were largely missing in action when it came to their raison d'etre of winning three-week races.
When it quickly became apparent that Wout Poels and Tao Geoghegan Hart were not going to trouble anyone with any serious red jersey aspirations, the British team did admittedly do their best to morph into stage hunters; in stage 9 alone, they managed to put five riders in the breakaway.
But despite Geoghegan Hart coming close twice – finishing third and second in back-to-back summit finishes – Ineos emerged from a Grand Tour with zero stage wins for the third time in the same season. At least during the Tour they had Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas on the top two steps of the podium; here, their best placed rider was Geoghegan Hart in 20th more than one hour down.
Domestique bliss award: Philippe Gilbert
Not content with winning a brace of stages aged 37 to take his Grand Tour tally up to 11, the Belgian was happy to help nurse his injured roommate James Knox through the final mountain stages, keeping him out of trouble and generally leading by example. The epitome of professionalism for a rider leaving for pastures new in a matter of months.
The Plus Ça Change award for tactical bafflement: Movistar
Whether it's ordering Marc Soler to drop back for an ailing Nairo Quintana…
… or chasing down their own men in the break further up the road…
… or throwing down the hammer when the race leader has been taken out by a crash…
Movistar never fail to disappoint. They also never fail missing out on the team classification award, which leads many to believe that perhaps that's what they're actually after in the first place.
The Equal Opportunities Award: Final podium
Not only was it topped by a man who used to throw himself off mountains attached to a pair of skis, a man who only took up cycling six years ago, it also included the oldest man in the race in Valverde and the youngest man in the race in Pogacar, a rider so young, he couldn't celebrate with a beer when he won the Tour of California earlier in the season.
My most popular tweet award: Valverde cheer
And that's a wrap. The Grand Tours continue next year, 2020, here on Eurosport…