The 23-year-old Evenepoel kicked off the drama on stage 13 when, with 90 km to go in the Vuelta queen stage’s 135 km, he surprisingly cracked early on the Special Category (HC) climb up the Col d’Aubisque (16.5 km @ 7.1%) and saw his dream of a second consecutive Vuelta victory disappear up the mountain. Led by Jumbo-Visma and Evenepoel’s other GC rivals, the peloton quickly widened the gap on the unlucky 23-year-old Belgian, as shocked spectators and commentators wondered if he had fallen ill again, as when he abandoned this year’s Giro d’Italia after testing positive for Covid.
As Evenepoel struggled on, another, very different drama unfolded on the stage’s final climb, the iconic Col du Tourmalet (18.9 km @ 7.4%), as first Vingegaard then race leader Kuss and finally Roglič raced away from their GC rivals and finished a rare 1-2-3 in the stage, underscoring Jumbo-Visma’s dominance. Vingegaard, who has won the last two Tours de France, picked up his first-ever Vuelta stage win and dedicated it to his daughter, Frida. “I’m just so happy,” he said. “Today is my daughter’s [third] birthday and I wanted to win for her.” Asked what the team’s plan for the stage was, he said, “To see if we could take some time on our opponents, and we did that. [Finishing 1-2-3] was even better than what we planned.”
The result also put all three Jumbo-Visma amigos on the provisional GC podium, with Kuss leading the standings, 1’ 37” ahead of Roglič, and Vingegaard in third, 1’ 44” adrift. It is unclear if a single team has ever taken the top three places on a Grand Tour but it’s well known by now that if a Jumbo-Visma rider wins the Vuelta, it will be the first time a team has ever won all three Grand Tours in a calendar year.
Meanwhile, Evenepoel struggled over the line an astonishing 27’ 05” behind Vingegaard and quickly disappeared into his trailer. To his credit, he faced journalists the next day before the start of stage 14. “It was a very difficult evening, with a lot of tears and crying,” Evenepoel admitted. “There have been two Grand Tours where I sacrificed everything. At the Giro, I went out with Covid; here it was just a very bad day, on the day when you needed super legs.”
To his greater credit, he bounced back with a vengeance, having rediscovered his racing legs. He animated stage 14 from the beginning, eager to break away from the peloton and redeem himself. He raced out front, in various groups, for virtually the entire 156.6 km from the French village of Sauveterre-de-Béarn to the Spanish winter resort of Larra-Belagua, eventually riding with only Romain Bardet (Team DSM-Firmenich) for company. He outkicked the French veteran in the final 2 km to take a popular victory and won back more than 8 minutes of the time he’d lost the previous day. Even Vingegaard saluted his performance. “I think it’s pretty cool that he bounced back like this,” the Danish rider said. “It was an impressive ride.”
Evenepoel had probably planned his comeback the previous day. Racing on stage 13, he no doubt realized that his chances of winning the Vuelta were gone and that the best he could hope for was to win a few stages and perhaps take a lesser jersey, such as for King of the Mountains. So he simply raced the remaining 90 km of stage 13 at his own pace, preserving energy for the next day and putting him so far behind in the GC that he would be allowed to race in breakaways, as he could no longer threaten any of the main red jersey contenders. Evenepoel wept again after winning the stage and then told journalists, “I can be very proud with this answer after yesterday. The mountain jersey and some stage wins are nice goals to go for.”
But what actually happened to Evenepoel on that fateful stage 13? Yes, riders sometimes have bad days when their legs are strong and they simply cannot keep up. But I believe that the reason for his meltdown was the UCI world championships held in the first two weeks of August. Evenepoel took part in both the road race and the ITT in that competition. The road race was a brutal contest in which only 51 of 193 starting riders made it to the finish line. Evenepoel got tired and eventually finished 25th. A week later, he won the ITT on a long course that included a difficult uphill finish. It was run on August 11, only two weeks before the start of the Vuelta. Vingegaard, Roglič and Kuss did not race in the worlds; they were preparing for the Vuelta. Geraint Thomas also raced in the ITT world championship and is having a bad Vuelta, with numerous crashes; he currently sits 31st, 1h 09′ 56” behind.
I doubt very much if the peloton will allow Evenepoel to take 8 minutes again. He is now 15th in the GC, 16’ 22” behind Kuss, but only 7’ 43” behind the tenth-place João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates). Almeida who also took part in the world championships, is having a disappointing Vuelta. He and his team will not want to see him drop out of the top 10 and so will certainly try to keep the Belgian from gaining much more time on Almeida.
The main suspense remaining in the race is which Jumbo-Visma rider will win it and if the three “killer bees” (because of the team’s yellow and black jerseys) will all finish on the podium. But Evenepoel’s stage 14 victory has made him a player again, which means fireworks and exciting subplots in the final week are assured.