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Roglič Wins Fiery Duel with Evenepoel in Volta a Catalunya

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

A total of 247 riders started the 2023 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, but 245 of them were mere extras in the race for the GC title, which played out in a fierce duel between Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič. One episode from the race illustrates the intensity of the battle the two riders waged against each other.

On the sixth stage of the seven-stage race, Evenepoel  (Soudal-Quick Step) made a bold move. With 27km remaining in a stage that was ideal for a mass sprint (after a scheduled climb had been deemed too dangerous and was annulled), the current World Road Race Champion burst away from the peloton. His plan was to draw Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), who had a GC advantage of 10 seconds over the 23-year-old Belgian, into a two-man breakaway and then put some distance between himself and the Slovenian on the final 3km by going into time trial mode. With the six bonus seconds awarded to a stage winner, Evenepoel was hoping to wrest the leader’s jersey from Roglič and then nurse that lead in Sunday’s final stage.

But Roglič didn’t want to play that game. He calmly sat on Evenepoel’s rear wheel, letting his rival do all the work while he was getting a free ride. And Evenepoel was really pumping the pedals, because in no time the two had a 30-second lead on the peloton. In an apparent attempt to force his rival into sharing the labor, whenever he knew a TV camera was on him, Evenepoel turned his head and tried to convince Roglič to take the lead for a while and give him a breather. But Roglič ignored him.

This scene was played out for the cameras four or five times, with Evenepoel eventually waving his arm and shouting in a pique of frustration. But to no avail. So, aware that he had played the wrong card, the world champion finally sat up and allowed the peloton to return. Australian Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) won the mass sprint to take his second stage win of the race.

“In the end, I had the wrong guy with me,” Evenepoel told Eurosport after the stage. “I mean he’s the strongest of the race so probably if he works with me, we go to the finish line together because we had 30 seconds [on the peloton]. It’s just a pity because it would’ve been nice to try and go for the stage win. But I think his team decided to not ride and save the jersey, which I completely understand.”

In the thrilling final stage, 136km in seven difficult laps through and around Barcelona, it was déjà vu all over again, with Evenepoel bursting away from the peloton on a climb with 28.5km to go, and again Roglič followed. And again Evenepoel demanded that the Jumbo-Visma leader share in the breakaway work – and this time Roglič did, but only minimally. And when Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) caught up with the dynamic duo, he refused to do any work at all. But Soler was dropped on the sixth lap, and the two adversaries rode to the finish together, as Evenepoel finally admitted defeat. When he sprinted to the line, Roglič did not contest the run, and the Belgian took a precious stage win.

“It was a hard race with Primož, so I’m glad I won this beautiful stage,” Evenepoel told Eurosport.

Roglič won the race GC by a scant 6 seconds over Evenepoel, with João Almeida completing the podium, 2min 11sec behind the winner. Despite the drama at the end, the key to the race was the first stage, which ended in a short, steep climb. It was won by Roglič  in a sprint over Evenepoel, and he took the GC lead, which he briefly shared but never relinquished. As Evenepoel explained, “It’s easier to defend a jersey than to attack. And Primož is very difficult to drop.”

Of the three difficult mountain finishes, Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) won the Beyond Category finish of stage 2, with Roglič second and Evenepoel third. Evenepoel then won the Category 1 finish of stage 3, with Roglič 2 seconds behind. This put the two riders on the exact same time in the GC. The Slovenian then won the Beyond Category climb at the end of stage 5, finishing 6 seconds ahead of his rival.

There was bad news in the Volta for Ineos Grenadiers’ Egan Bernal. This  was his first race since January, when he injured his knee in a crash in the Vuelta a San Juan – which was his first race since suffering severe injuries in a training crash in his homeland of Colombia one year earlier. Bernal crashed on Saturday’s stage 6 of the Volta and was taken to a hospital, where scans showed that nothing was broken. But the incident will almost certainly set his training back again and make his participation in this year’s Tour de France more than uncertain.

But it was a very good Sunday for Jumbo-Visma because, on top of Roglič’s Volta victory, Christophe Laporte and Wout van Aert finished first and second, respectively, in the one-day Gent-Wevelgen, nearly 2 minutes ahead of the also-rans.

As for Roglič and Evenepoel, they will resume their rivalry in the Giro d’Italia, so we can look forward to more fireworks in May.