Blazin’ Saddles: Primoz Roglic vs Tadej Pogacar vs a fully fit Egan Bernal for the Tour de France – make it happen
After winning a third successive Vuelta a Espana crown in dominating fashion, Primoz Roglic has fans salivating at the prospect of a Tour de France showdown with his compatriot Tadej Pogacar. And through the odd glimpse of what he is capable in Spain, Egan Bernal, too, would make this a fascinating three-way battle – provided he can return to full fitness in a more cohesive Ineos Grenadiers team.
All three of cycling’s Grand Tours in 2021 were walkovers for the men who emerged in pink, yellow and red.
The latest of those successes was secured with Primoz Roglic’s fourth stage win of the Vuelta during a race in which he also came second on four occasions. To rub salt into the wounds of his closest challenger, Roglic passed his two-minute man Enric Mas in the dying moments of Sunday’s TT to practically double his overall winning margin and ensure that it was he, and not the Dane Magnus Cort, who scooped a fourth stage victory.
The Slovenian has now become the third man to win three successive Vueltas after Switzerland’s Tony Rominger and Spain’s Roberto Heras – and he did so in swashbuckling fashion, bookending his race with time trial triumphs and conceding the red jersey on two occasions (and crashing twice in three days) despite never really relinquishing his gasp on the maillot rojo.
Roglic has now won his previous seven time trials on Spanish soil in a run stretching back to 2018. Phenomenal.
Truth be told, it wasn’t an overly fascinating edition of the Vuelta, but Roglic still fascinated with pretty much every pedal stroke. What a rider he is. His versatility and depth as an opponent and playmaker is extraordinary and it’s just a huge shame that his early crash in the Tour this July deprived us of his expected rematch against countryman Tadej Pogacar.
'Machine' Roglic will rival Pogacar at 2022 Tour de France - Wiggins
In the absence of Roglic – and any real rival, to be fair – Pogacar blasted to a second Tour win, his victory never in doubt from the moment he took yellow on the first summit finish in Stage 8. As soon as he won the Stage 5 time trial, it all looked a formality. Pogacar added another two stage wins and ended up 5:20 clear of his nearest challenger, Jonas Vingegaard – the rider who assumed leadership at Jumbo-Visma once Roglic retired.
As it happened, Pog’s winning margin was not entirely dissimilar to the 4:42 gap Rog held over Mas for what was the biggest glory gap on the Vuelta for 24 years. In fact, the time differences between first and fifth were remarkably similar (10:13 in the Tour, 11:33 in the Vuelta) although the 10th place rider in Spain was a whopping 22:22 down on Roglic – almost four minutes slower than his Tour counterpart.
By comparison, Egan Bernal’s victory in the Giro d’Italia was far more conservative than those of his colleagues: his winning margin over Damiano Caruso was just 1:29 but the gap back to 10th place was actually one second larger than in the Tour. And like Pogacar, the Colombian went into the race lead on the first weekend in the mountains and never really looked back.
Bernal throws hammer down as only Roglic can follow
What stood out for Bernal was that his two stage wins and maglia rosa in Italy marked the return to form of a rider who had seriously underperformed since his maiden Tour victory in 2019, which he achieved aged 22 and before Pogacar had even made his Grand Tour debut. Talk about a changing of the guard ever since.
While impressive – Bernal won two mountain stages and finished in the top three on three other occasions – this rebounding stood out more for what it promised to become. Already, people were talking about a potential three-way battle between the Colombian and the two Slovenian superstars at the Vuelta. This may have happened had Pogacar not wisely decided to put his feet up for a break after swapping his yellow jersey for a bronze medal in Tokyo.
A good thing, too. What happened in Spain these past few weeks was for the best – and the pieces are now in motion now for a sensational match-up next July. Roglic needed a huge morale-boosting victory in Spain to get him back on the right track, the 31-year-old making a slice of history that his younger compatriot may never match. Bernal, meanwhile, perhaps needed another Grand Tour in his legs – and some vital experience racing against Roglic – before returning to the Tour for the first time since withdrawing in 2020 with a bad back.
'A great champion' - Bernal now showing he can match Roglic, says Wiggins
While it’s clear that his injury issues are not behind him, Bernal can take heart from his race – and he always conducted himself in exemplary fashion, from going all-in with 61km remaining of Stage 17 to Lagos de Covadonga, to congratulating Gino Mader after the Swiss debutant took over control of the white jersey deep in the race.
There’s also a strong argument that says Ineos Grenadiers needed to make another complete balls-up of a Grand Tour leadership structure in order to give Bernal – or somebody – a better chance of success in an era were two Slovenians look to dominate.
This Vuelta was proof, if ever you needed any, that dual leaderships or the infamous trident model favoured by Movistar (and, latterly, Ineos) don’t win you modern-day Grand Tours.
Ineos, Bahrain-Victorious, Jumbo-Visma and (until the penultimate day) Movistar all had two riders in the top eight – but only one team ever looked to own the top step of the podium. That Adam Yates ended up as Ineos’s top rider in fourth place, and not Bernal – the man they seemed to be protecting – may have vindicated the Briton’s isolationist approach to riding the race, but you have to wonder how things may have been had Yates rode the Vuelta for Bernal the same way that Sepp Kuss rode for Roglic.
As for Movistar, losing Alejandro Valverde was a blow, but the bizarre events of Stage 20 – which saw Miguel Angel Lopez give up in a strop just two days after winning the queen stage – highlight a problem far more serious than the salient fact that, for all his staying-power and rounded ability, Enric Mas is never going to win a Grand Tour in an era of such explosiveness.
Like Yates, Richard Carapaz – a total no-show on his golden Pinarello – has proved himself to be an unreliable team player at Ineos, so it’s hard to envisage a Tour de France squad that either would improve unless they were not the main focal point. With Geraint Thomas’s last dance surely now over, it’s time for Ineos to construct a team around Bernal to rival the slick Jumbo-Visma and improving UAE Team Emirates machines behind their main men. Do this and a fit Bernal could make next summer’s Pog vs Rog headline act all the more compelling.
Bahrain back-up plans come good
A strong final week saw Bahrain-Victorious complete the Vuelta with two riders in the top five, with Jack Haig holding off Yates and seeing off the volatile Lopez for that final place on the podium, and Gino Mader capping an outstanding debut by rising above Bernal to take the white jersey. Considering this was a team that entered with Mikel Landa as the GC focal point, that is a remarkable return.
Likewise, when Landa crashed out of the Giro, Damiano Caruso – back on domestique duties in Spain, but doing so while adding another outstanding stage win – rose to the challenge with a career-best second place. The team’s Tour performance after Haig crashed out early wasn’t exactly bad, either: stage wins from Dylan Teuns and Matej Mohoric (twice), the team classification, and a victory of sorts over the French police in Pau.
Of course, they won’t win a Grand Tour until Pogacar, Roglic or Bernal don’t turn up at the start – or until they sort out their own leadership conundrum – but the progress is huge. Like Lopez at Movistar, perhaps it took another underwhelming Landa-ish performance for the selectors to admit that the mercurial Basque climber can no longer be a valid plan A.
Other things of note from the 76th Vuelta
How brilliant were Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert? On both occasions where Roglic lost the red jersey, it was the Belgian team who took over at the top – with Rein Taaramae’s short stint followed by a week in red for Odd Christian Eiking. The Estonian took a stage win and the resurgent Louis Meintjes would have added a top 10 were it not for his unfortunate crash in Stage 19. It’s a shame Eiking is off to EF Education-Nippo, but there are many reasons to be happy for the WorldTour’s newest recruit.
Talking of EF Education-Nippo, Magnus Cort’s magnificent haul of three stage wins – almost adding a fourth in the final TT – turned things around following the early withdrawal of last year’s podium finisher Hugh Carthy. Cort underlined his versatility by earning the race’s combativity award to cap a sensation three weeks for the great Dane.
'Unbelievable stuff' - Cort roars to Stage 19 win from breakaway
Alpecin-Fenix’s run of winning the opening bunch sprint of each Grand Tour continued with Jasper Philipsen’s triumph in Stage 2 to Burgos. The Belgian added another win before retiring with fatigue.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s ability to throw tear-jerking stories at us continued with Fabio Jakobsen picking up the baton after Mark Cavendish’s Tour exploits. One year after his life-threatening accident in Poland, the Dutchman roared back to the top with a hat-trick of stage wins and – mirroring Cavendish’s comeback – the green jersey. And on the day he didn’t win, Frenchman Florian Senechal took the spoils for the Belgian team. Quite who they select as sprinter for next year’s Tour remains to be seen. Perhaps the only answer is to plump for both.
After Jay Hindley in last year’s Giro and Ben O’Connor in this year’s Tour, another Australian climber came of age in the Vuelta as baby-faced assassin Michael Storer won two summit finishes, almost adding a third as he rounded off a one-two in the polka dot jersey standings for Team DSM ahead of teammate Romain Bardet.
‘The boy from Perth is going to do it again!’ - Storer doubles up on Stage 10 as Eiking takes red
UAE Team Emirates showed that they are more than a one-man band. There may be a raft of incoming signings to help bolster the Pogacar hegemony, but Matteo Trentin was consistently aggressive, old hand Rafal Majka expertly rolled back the years with a stage win in the mountains, while a late rally by David de la Cruz saw the Spaniard – still without a contract for 2022 – rise to seventh.
On the subject of Spaniards, for the first time since 1996 there were no stage winners from the host nation – with Enric Mas, Carlos Verona and Alex Aranburu all coming closest with second places. It’s also the first time in history that no Spanish rider has won a stage of a Grand Tour in a single calendar year – a harsh reality of the post-Contador era.
It will be music to Spanish fans’ ears, then, to learn that Alejandro Valverde has vowed to race on for one more year. The 41-year-old cruelly crashed out in the opening week while showing some good form, taking from the race the host nation’s most likely stage-winning tool. The Vuelta without Valverde just wouldn’t be the Vuelta.
‘He’s got there!’ - Champoussin arrives from nowhere to snatch Stage 20 win
And finally, the stage win of the race arguably went to a rider who many fans would not have heard of before the start of Stage 20, let alone before the Vuelta. Caught by the GC riders on the final climb of the entire race, at the end of a pulsating stage featuring over 4,300m of climbing, Clement Champoussin (AG2R-Citroen) had every right to roll over and succumb to the inevitable. Instead, he out-Rogged Rog himself, dancing past the man in red with cycling's answer to a human kinetic energy recovery system boost.
Champoussin's champagne moment was the biggest steal of the century – and some way to secure the first pro win of his career.