As the race organizers have realized, racing through mountains provides the most excitement for a global television audience in a three-week road race, and this year’s Vuelta offered up plenty of climbing and descending, with seven mountain stages, six stages classified as hilly, and no fewer than eight uphill finishes.
The mountains also provided the revelation of this year’s Vuelta, Tadej Pogačar. The 20-year-old Slovenian who was riding his first Grand Tour won three mountain stages in fine style and finished third in the Vuelta’s general classification, just 22 seconds behind the former Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain who is nearly twice his age.
Pogačar also won the title of the best young rider of the race. His battle with the 25-year-old Colombian Miguel Ángel López for the title, which saw the Slovenian snatch the white jersey from López with victory on the final mountain stage, added more spice to the race. Another young Colombian rider and Grand Tour debutant, 22-year-old Sergio Higuita, also showed great promise by winning the 18th stage. With 22-year-old Egal Bernal’s Tour de France triumph, 2019 unveiled a new generation of extremely talented young riders, which bodes well for the sport’s future (and the future of Slovenian and Colombian cycling).
Another factor that added to the excitement of this year’s Vuelta was the absence of dominant riders – no Chris Froome, still recovering from a horrendous training crash, no Geraint Thomas, no Bernal, no Peter Sagan. And even though the pre-race favourite, Slovenian Primož Roglič, won the race by a comfortable margin of 2’33”, his slow start and the elimination of several contenders through crashes maintained suspense for much of the race.
Besides, a major mistake by the Slovenian on the wind-swept stage 17 nearly cost him the race. When a large group of riders including the title rival Nairo Quintana took off on a breakaway, Roglič found himself too far from the front of the pack to stay in touch. Instead, he was part of the second group that had to chase the breakaway for over 200 km. And with his team having worked hard to limit the damage, he found himself isolated with 40 km to go. But he was able to form alliances with other teams who had general classification riders under threat from Quintana and lost “only” 5 minutes to the Colombian.
Team Ineos, so dominant in the Tour de France, was not a factor in the Vuelta. Instead, Roglič’s Team Jumbo-Visma continued its excellent form with a brilliant plan – grab the red jersey in the time trial and keep the rivals in check in the mountains – and excellent support for its leader.
But it was a team decision taken months earlier that was fundamental to Roglič’s victory, namely that he would not race in the Tour de France as planned but tackle the Vuelta instead. The reason for that decision was that, after finishing third in the Giro d’Italia, the Slovenian was exhausted from his futile attempts to hold the race lead in the final stages of that race.
According to Jumbo-Visma’s sports director Addy Engels, “he was done physically after the Giro. He was at his end. He would not have been in top shape in the Tour, and you have to be.”
Therefore, Roglič rode only in the Slovenian national championship in June and came for the Vuelta fresh and strong. In addition, the question of who would be the team leader in the Vuelta – Roglič or Steven Kruijswijk who had finished third in the Tour de France – was settled early when Kruijswijk crashed in the opening-day team time trial and dropped out of the race a few days later because of a knee injury.
Roglič’s victory in the Vuelta provides three key lessons for any cyclist dreaming of winning a Grand Tour:
- Excel at time trials and climb well.
- Have a great team behind (but especially in front of) you.
- Come in fresh and don’t race in the preceding Grand Tour. Only three riders have won the Tour de France and the Vuelta in the same season, Jacques Anquetil (1963), Bernard Hinault (1978), and Chris Froome in 2017 – and Froome was the first to win back-to-back Grand Tours since Marco Pantani in 1998.
- Choose a race not targeted by Team Ineos.