As much as the locals of Monforte de Lemos would have appreciated the magnitude of Magnus Cort’s hat-trick on Friday, they would have much preferred to see one of their own top the podium. For with just two days remaining, the hosts risk missing out on a stage win for the first time since 1996 – the only other Vuelta where this abject calamity has happened.
The last Spaniard to taste success on the Vuelta was Ion Izagirre in Stage 6 of last year’s delayed event on October 25 – four days after compatriot Marc Soler won Stage 2 in style. The year before that, four Spanish riders won stages – the same as in 2018. But 2021 has been a train-wreck for the hosts, despite the early promise from the opening time trial when Alex Aranburu came second behind Primoz Roglic in the opening time trial.
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Not having a top-tier sprinter is partly to blame. Astana’s Aranburu managed to take fifth place in the bunch sprint in Stage 2 but the best Jon Aberasturi has managed is sixth place in Stage 5 for Caja Rural-Seguros RGA.
Of course, Spanish cycling is not exactly synonymous with sprinting and it’s more regularly on the climbs where we see Spanish riders succeed – which is probably why their record is usually so favourable in their home tour, renowned more for its gradients than gallops.
Much of that success in recent years has come from the now-retired Alberto Contador and the 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde. So it was a huge blow, then, when the 41-year-old former world champion – a winner of 12 Vuelta stages during his long career – crashed out in Stage 7. His Movistar teammate Carlos Verona came second that day behind Michael Storer on the Balcon de Alicante – as good as it got for the hosts in the opening week.
Stage 19 highlights: Cort wins with help from Craddock
Enric Mas – the man tipped to assume Contador's crown – has had his opportunities. The 26-year-old was third in Stage 9 at Alto de Velefique, second behind rampant Roglic on the uphill sprint at Valdepenas de Jaen (Stage 11), six at Lagos de Covadonga (Stage 17) and third on the gruelling ramps of the Altu d’El Gamoniteiru in Stage 18.
But Mas seems to lack the killer instinct to turn these podium positions into wins – certainly in any race where a dominant rider such as Roglic is competing.
On Friday’s 191km Stage 19 through Galicia, six Spaniards managed to make it into the day’s 24-man break. But with all due respect to Ander Okamika and Pelayo Sanchez (Burgos-BH), Antonio Soto (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Aritz Bagues, Julen Amezqueta and Oier Lazkano (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), you never really fancied any of their chances.
Soto, perhaps, with his three previous top 10 finishes, may have been a factor. Although once push came to shove and the final shake-out occurred, none of the seven surviving escapees who defied the returning peloton were Spanish – as yet another opportunity fizzled out.
All is not yet lost. In 2017 Contador left it until Stage 20 and the Alto de l’Angliru to secure a first victory for Spain – and Stefan Denifl’s subsequent ban meant El Pistolero was also given a retrospective win at Los Machuchos from three days earlier.
Saturday’s penultimate stage from Sanxenxo to Castro de Herville is a 202km slog with 4,300m of climbing and a parcours that looks like Liège-Bastogne-Liège on steroids. Given what’s at stake, it’s hard to look beyond a massive GC battle and a win for one of the in-form riders of the final week – the likes of Roglic, Egan Bernal or Miguel Angel Lopez.
Mas, of course, remains a possibility – and should he manage to overturn his 2:30 deficit on the man in red, then no one will worry too much about whether or not Spain leave this Vuelta without a stage win.
But if they do fail in this quest – and let’s be honest: given Roglic’s quality against the clock, the only realistic chance to end the drought is on Saturday – then the hosts will be making another undesirable record: never before has Spain failed to pick up a stage win in any of cycling’s Grand Tours in a year where all three of them have taken place.
All eyes will now be on Mas, the improving David de la Cruz and the Izagirre brothers, Ion and Gorka, for Saturday’s penultimate stage. Because there’s no chance that anyone other than the Olympic champion from Slovenia is going to win the 32km time trial in Santiago de Compostela.
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