Groves’ March to La Vuelta’s Škoda Green Jersey Hit a Few Speed Bumps

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The inexorable, and probably inevitable, march of Alpecin-Deceuninck’s sprinter Kaden Groves to the Škoda Green Jersey victory in the 2023 Vuelta a España has been hit by some headwinds. The latest blow came on Thursday’s rare flat stage 12, 151 km from Olvega to Zaragoza, when the Australian’s leadout man suffered a minor mechanical problem some 150 m from the finish and Juan Sebastian Molano (UAE Team Emirates), benefiting from a perfect leadout by Rui Olivera, powered to victory. “I’m very happy,” Molano said after the race. “My team was amazing.”

Oliveira certainly was, as he took advantage of the wide avenue to speed past the faltering Groves and lead his teammate into the perfect position for the win. “Our strategy was to go on the left [side of the road] because the wind was coming from the right,” Oliveira said. “I knew I had the legs and I knew that if I timed it well, it would work.”

The stage wasn’t a total loss for Groves, who recovered well to finish second and also won the stage’s intermediate sprint. He now leads the points classification with 203 points, with Marijn van den Berg (EF Education-EasyPost) far back in second place, at 85 points, and GC co-favourite Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) sitting in third with 79.

Groves also found disappointment in the Vuelta’s previous bunch sprint, in stage 7, when a 90-degree left-hand turn with 300 m to go pushed him too wide and separated him from his leadout rider, which led to an unlikely photo-finish victory by the 35-year-old French rider Geoffrey Soupe (TotalEnergies) over Orluis Aular (Caja Rural-Segurosrga). This was Soupe’s first-ever victory in a top-level UCI road race.

He said after the 201 km stage from Utiel to Oliva that he had launched his sprint with some distance to go and was surprised when no one came past him. That was because Groves was not the only sprinter caught out by that final curve. “I didn’t have the Vuelta [on my calendar] this year but Alexis Vuillermoz crashed in the Tour de l’Ain and the team decided to take me to the Vuelta,” Soupe said. “I didn’t think it was possible [for me] to win a stage because it’s really, really, really fast in the sprint. Today it was really nervous in the final [sprint], we had a lot of roundabouts, a lot of wind also. It was a long shot, a surprise, but always special.”

One problem with having so few bona fide sprinters in this year’s Vuelta is that few teams have brought a bona fide leadout setup. As a result, most of the bunch sprints run so far have been rather chaotic, with only stage 4 and stage 12 ending in a more or less orderly manner. Perhaps coincidentally, stage 4 was also the most exciting sprint finish so far, with Groves – who had been provided with a perfect leadout – just nosing out the very speedy Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers).

The sprint on stage 3 was disrupted by an untimely crash that found Molano in the lead with 200 m to go and Groves trailing him by about five bike lengths. But this time the Australian easily beat him to the line.

There are two potential bunch sprints left in the race, so it seems that all Groves has to do is make it safely over the high Pyrenees mountains, within the prescribed time for each stage, to wear green in Madrid on September 17 – though he will certainly want to win at least another stage to make it a fat three sprint victories.

1. Kaden Groves, Alpecin-Deceuninck, 203 points
2. Marijn van den Berg, EF Education-EasyPost, 85
3. Remco Evenepoel, Soudal-QuickStep, 79
4. Juan Sebastian Molano, UAE Team Emirates, 78
5. Andreas Kron, Lotto Dstny, 77