A Few Takeaways from the 2022 Vuelta a España

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

I think it’s fair to describe the Vuelta a España as a theater of the unexpected, and this year’s race was more dramatic than usual. But not from a suspense point of view; the green jersey race was all but over after stage 9 and Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) had the GC competition well in hand even before Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) crashed out at the finish of stage 16 (and more about that later). Too much of the Vuelta’s drama this year was, unfortunately, due to withdrawals from the race.

A total of 49 riders dropped out of the Vuelta, a staggering 26.6% of the riders that started the race. And more than half, 25 riders, withdrew because of Covid. That’s a lot – and many of the withdrawals had an impact on the outcome. For example, Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) tested positive before the start of stage 10, when he was trailing eventual ŠKODA Green Jersey winner Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) by just five points. Roglič withdrew after his crash, as he appeared to be gaining on Evenepoel. The Slovenian’s top support rider, Sepp Kuss, one of the best climbers in the world, abandoned because of fever before stage 9, which was a serious blow to Roglič’s GC ambitions. And Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck) left the race after crashing early in stage 18, when he was leading the King of the Mountains competition, won by Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).

More important from a big-picture point of view was Evenepoel’s self-assured performance and GC victory. Even when Roglič was gaining on him late in the race, he never seemed to be on the point of breaking. He was strong enough in the mountains and far superior to anyone else in the ITT, which is a tried-and-true formula for winning Grand Tour races. His win was the first Belgian GC victory in a Grand Tour in 44 years. More important, however, is the fact that Evenepoel is only 22 years old. Coupled with the retirements of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), at age 42, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Quazaqstan), at 37, Richie Porte (Ineos Grenadiers), 37, and Philippe Gilbert (Lotto Soudal), 40, the change of generations is complete. As of now, the best Grand Tour GC cyclists in the world are all 25 or younger: Tadej Pogačar is 23 and Jonas Vingegaard is 25. The kings are dead, long live the kings.

This sets up a delicious and intriguing scenario for next year’s Tour de France, especially if the 25-year-old Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) manages to fully recover his form and if Evenepoel decides to race in it. The reason he may not is that, based on this Vuelta performance, he is not yet at the level of Pogačar and Vingegaard in the mountains, especially on the long, steep climbs. And let’s face it (with no disrespect intended to the Vuelta, which is a race we love), the riders Evenepoel defeated were not nearly as strong as those Vingegaard beat in the Tour de France. There was only one TdF winner in the race, the 37-year-old Nibali. Roglič, who trailed Evenepoel by a little more than a minute when he crashed out, has never won the Tour. The best finish in the Tour by Enric Mas (Movistar), who finished second to the Belgian by 2min 5sec, came fifth in the 2020 Tour, more than 6 minutes behind Pogačar. Evenepoel definitely needs to improve his climbing if he wants to challenge the likes of Vingegaard and two-time Tour winner Pogačar, who I am sure will be in the form of his life next year to reclaim the yellow jersey.

A final note. This Vuelta was a disaster for the Jumbo-Visma team from every angle. Though they won the stage 1 team time trial and Roglič took stage 4, Kuss’s withdrawal because of a fever appeared to deflate the team. Evenepoel’s dominant victory in the ITT, by 48 seconds over Roglič, left Jumbo-Visma with a mountain to climb, literally and figuratively. Frustration levels must have been high, because the day after their leader abandoned, the team released a statement in which Roglič blames Bahrain Victorious rider Fred Wright for the crash.

“Wright came from behind and rode the handlebars out of my hands before I knew it,” Roglič is quoted as saying in the statement, which has since been removed from the Jumbo-Visma website. The video of the incident seems to support Wright, who said it was just “a simple racing incident.” In any case, it was an unexpected reaction by a usually super-professional cycling team to being deprived of victory.