The image of this year’s Vuelta a España that will linger the longest in my mind is that of Clement Champoussin dragging himself up the 9 per cent gradient to the finish line of stage 20, his mouth wide open, his bike unsteady under him, muscles burning, lungs burning, while pursued by Primož Roglič, Enric Mas, Jack Haig and Adam Yates, the riders who finished first to fourth in the GC.
The reason I will remember it is because Frenchman Champoussin is only 23 years old and the hunger he showed on that final ramp illustrated the ambition of a new generation of riders who are about to dominate world cycling. Champoussin’s only other victories in his cycling career were two stages and the GC of the 2019 Giro del Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a category 2.2 race in the UCI Europe Tour. The winner of that race the previous year was named Tadej Pogačar, the leader of this new generation of cyclists. That’s not to say that Champoussin – who finished 16th in the Vuelta GC – will be another Pogačar. But he may very well become a star.
The Vuelta was truly a coming of age for other young riders such as Champoussin. Fabio Jakobsen, who won the green jersey, is only 25. The ease with which the Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider dominated the points classification competition suggests he will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. Naturally, he was delighted with his first Grand Tour jersey win. “The legs are empty but, for sure, I enjoyed the last kilometres,” he said after finishing the last stage. “I knew I had some time, so I waved a bit to the crowds and cheered like it was a victory because for me finishing here… is the biggest victory so far.”
Other performances of note by young riders in the Vuelta include:
– Alpecin–Fenix’s Jasper Philipsen, who wore the green jersey for five stages and was Jakobsen’s closest rival until being forced to drop out due to a fever, is 23;
– DSM’s Australian climber Michael Storer, who won the King of the Mountains jersey and two Vuelta stages, is 24; and
– Gino Mäder of Bahrain Victorious, who is 24, finished fifth in the GC and won the white jersey for best young rider – ahead of Egan Bernal, also 24 and already winner of two Grand Tours.
On the other hand, a Spanish rider failed to win a Vuelta stage for the first time since 2000 and for only the second time in history. The Spanish Movistar team did win the 18th stage but it was won by the Colombian rider Miguel Ángel López. However, that victory was tarnished when López dropped out of the race midway through stage 20 after missing a break by the leading riders, seeing his chances for a spot on the Vuelta podium fading with every kilometre and then getting into an argument with Movistar’s performance coach Patxi Vila.
Even more remarkable, not one of this year’s 63 Grand Tour stages was won by a Spanish rider. The talk is often about the failures of French riders to win the Tour de France but surely this is a far more serious failure by a major cycling nation. Perhaps it is simply a matter of young Spanish riders not developing quickly enough to take the place of their elders whose best days are behind them. Whatever the reason, there is a crisis in Spanish cycling.
Realizing what just happened… 🤯 pic.twitter.com/X66r2S7bmz
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) September 5, 2021
Finally, it must be said that, despite being only the second-best Slovenian rider in the world, Roglič is a true champion. He and his Jumbo-Visma team controlled and dominated the Vuelta from start to finish, and he easily won the race for the third time on the trot. He also won four stages and could have won more if he’d really wanted to, such was his dominance. Based on this performance, some observers are predicting that he will beat the best Slovenian rider in the world, Pogačar, in next year’s Tour de France.
Don’t bet on it. Pogačar is the most talented rider of the 21st century and may well turn out to become the best Grand Tour rider in history. But it’s early days yet because the two-time Tour de France winner is only 22 years old!