There’s an old saying in Grand Tour racing (if not, there should be): he who lives by the time trial, dies by the time trial. Or vice versa. Just ask Primož Roglič who famously suffered a fatal defeat to countryman Tadej Pogačar in the time trial on the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour de France and has now won the Vuelta because of his ITT superiority.
Richard Carapaz of Ineos Grenadiers was clearly a better climber than Roglič in the 2020 La Vuelta but he was not better enough to make up for the 49 seconds he lost to the Slovenian in the 13th stage ITT. Carapaz and Ineos must be asking themselves what would the result have been if the Bolivian had taken off on the ascent of La Covatilla 1 km earlier than he did. Roglič was cooked as was his main man, Sepp Kuss, who had emptied his tank supporting his leader on the previous climbs. Did Carapaz have the legs to do a 3- or 4-km sprint up the mountain to the finish line instead of the 2-km breakaway he did? If so, he probably would have won the Vuelta.
Like the Tour de France and the Vuelta, the Giro was also won in the ITT when Ineos’s Tao Geoghegan Hart broke a GC tie with Sunweb’s Jai Hindley on the race’s penultimate stage to take a famous (and unexpected) victory by 39 seconds. In fact, if there is one overall lesson to take away from this delayed, disrupted and ultimately exciting Grand Tour season, it is that the individual time trial has become the most important stage in a three-week race. The reason may be that all GC contenders are excellent climbers. While some are better than others, the differences are currently not big enough to make up for the disparities in time trials.
Rivals who saw Roglič struggle on the two toughest climbs of the Vuelta, rescued from disaster by Kuss on the first and Lennart Hofstede on the second, will be feeling optimistic about their chances next year – if they improve their time trialling. Roglič is not yet the dominant rider he wants to be. Next year should feature a number of strong GC contenders, including three from Ineos: Carapaz, Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.
And just how important are team support riders? They apparently were crucial to Roglič but Carapaz did most of the heavy climbing on his own as Pogačar had done in the Tour. Certainly, it helps to ride in the slipstream of three or four teammates in the flat and over the hills and it’s great to have someone bring you food and drink but currently (especially since the elimination of team time trials) a Grand Tour is won mano a mano, whether in an ITT or on the man-killing slopes of the Angliru.
On the other hand, the argument could be made that Kuss’s help throughout the Vuelta and Hofstede’s brief assistance on that final, decisive climb ensured the 24 seconds that separated Roglič from Carapaz.
Speaking of teams, what has happened to Ineos Grenadiers? They eked out a surprise victory in the Giro but they were almost invisible in the defining stages of the Vuelta. Chris Froome made a few attempts to help Carapaz on the mountains but he did not last long. It’s too soon to tell from this performance if he will ever recover his best form. But Ineos should return better than ever next year.
And will cycling ever recover its best form? While the Covid-19 epidemic disrupted the three Grand Tours, they were all run to completion, for our great pleasure. But the pandemic’s real damage to cycling lies ahead as team sponsors who have been economically hurt by the pandemic end their funding. There will be fewer professional cycling teams in the near term, especially in the minor races, and therefore fewer paying jobs for young riders looking to break into the big time. The extent of the damage depends on how quickly the pandemic ends and potential sponsors recover from the economic downturn.
So it’s probably a good idea for all cycling fans to cross their fingers – and wear face masks.