The Australian sprinter Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceunick) appeared to have the points classification sewn up at the start of the final week, as he had a commanding lead over all his rivals and there were only two possible bunch sprints remaining, stage 19 and Sunday’s final stage. But then something unexpected happened: Evenepoel cracked early on stage 13 and lost more than 27 minutes in the GC, ending any hope he had of winning the red jersey a second year in a row. The next day, after redeeming himself with a remarkable stage win, he said that his focus would now be on winning more stages and taking the King of the Mountain jersey. He did not mention going after the Škoda Green Jersey as well.
Nevertheless, as he continuously took part in breakaways, he inevitably also accumulated points, to the point where commentators were suggesting that the young and very ambitious Belgian might just snap up the green jersey as it seemed ripe for the taking. This prompted a reaction by Groves who started becoming more interested in finding points in intermediate sprints. But he should not have worried. True to his word, Evenepoel spurned taking maximum points on intermediate sprints when he had the chance as if to underscore his stated intentions.
The 24-year-old Groves passed perhaps his stiffest test on Wednesday’s stage 17 when he finished 125th in the most difficult stage in the race and survived one of the hardest climbs in all of road racing,the Angliru (12.4 km @ 9.8%), and now stands on the cusp, barring accident or illness, of becoming the first Australian to win the Škoda Green Jersey in the Vuelta. That’s quite an accomplishment, especially in a race that has historically not favoured sprinters. Still, Groves remains wary of Evenepoel.
😍¡Aquí tenéis las mejores fotos de la etapa 17!
📸 A selection of the best photos from stage 17!
— La Vuelta (@lavuelta) September 13, 2023
“We have to start capitalizing on the intermediate sprints,” he told Cyclingnews after stage 17. “Remco is now second on points, although I know he’s not even interested in the points. However, with his stage win, he gets the points anyway. So, we’ve got to continue chipping away at that… I expect him to slowly keep chipping away and come closer to me.”
In fact, Thursday’s stage 18 and especially Saturday’s stage 20 seem perfect for breakaways, and teams that have not yet won a stage in the race will be keen to do away with that shortcoming. It’s unclear how strong Evenepoel’s legs are after the Angliru stage, in which he raced most of the course in a breakaway and much of the second half of the race on his own until he was caught with 8 km to go on that final climb. But if he is feeling strong, he will jump with any credible breakaway and try to win both stages – though stage 18, with its three category 1 climbs (including two ascents of the Puerto de la Cruz de Linares, 8.3 km @ 8.6%), may be a bridge too far for him.
After stage 17, Groves leads Evenepoel by 228 points to 152. That is not an insurmountable gap but it is substantial, especially with two possible bunch sprints left. It is in the Australian’s favour that since 2021 the Vuelta has awarded 50 points to the winner of a flat stage and 30 to the victor of a medium mountain stage, to conform to the system used in the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia and also to eliminate the bias that has disadvantaged sprinters in the past. If Groves wins or places second (30 points) in Friday’s flat stage, he can stop worrying and picture himself in green in Madrid on Sunday.