As the race heads into its first weekend, La Vuelta is simmering nicely.
While we may not be talking about the Stage 4 downhill slog to Ejea de los Caballeros in years to come – possibly not even after dinner tonight – stages five and six promise much, even without the mighty Tourmalet.
The race so far has been a whirlwind. The planned ‘depart’ in the Netherlands was scratched, giving the riders no opportunity to ease themselves in – and it is a formula that has produced excitement from the start, without rending the GC so far open that it becomes a foregone conclusion.
Yes, Primoz Roglic is in the lead and that’s by no means a surprise. But the contest is close, and Dan Martin’s victory on Stage 3 proves he has the legs to mount a serious challenge to Roglic and Jumbo-Visma in the next days.
Highlights: Martin pips Roglic in summit finish
Make no mistake, Roglic remains the favourite to take back-to-back Vuelta titles for the first time since Roberto Heras’ triple in the mid-2000s, but the Slovenian thrives on control, not chaos, and there has been little of the former so far at La Vuelta.
'Primoz the supreme!' - Watch as Roglic storms to Stage 1 victory at La Vuelta
Shorter climbs with steeper gradients play to the strengths of Martin, so while it’s a loss to the race as a spectacle, the removal of the Tourmalet actually helps to blunt one of the sharpest weapons in Roglic’s arsenal: his team of killer mountain domestiques.
Richard Carapaz is feeling so good at the moment that he attacked off the front of Stage 2 without a hope in hell of actually winning time, only to be caught 25km out and still place third in the sprint between the GC men. Ineos are not relying on their usual mountain train tactics, it seems, embracing an attacking philosophy that has profited them enormously over in Italy.
Movistar appear to be doing their best to make every windy flatland section as unpleasant as possible for all concerned, and that only amps up the chaos factor further. Between them and Martin attacking whenever the road hits double digits, we can expect very little peace for Roglic and co in the next few days.
Slightly further down the GC, Hugh Carthy is having a brilliant ride in fifth, while Enric Mas, the ghost of Artá, is hovering ominously just off the podium places. While neither has shown the sort of strength-to-attack that Martin and Carapaz have displayed, they are no doubt poised and ready to take advantage of the first chink in Roglic’s yellow and black armour.
In the lower reaches of the top ten – Felix Grossschartner has blown a little bit hot and cold for Bora-Hansgrohe so far in the race, but Esteban Chaves looked supreme in Stages 1 and 2. Indeed, the Colombian only lost time because of a mechanical issue at just the moment things really kicked off on the final ascent of Stage 3 – the bitterly steep climb to Laguna Negra de Vinuesa.
By the time he was back on a teammate’s bike, one far too big for him, it was too late. He will need to attack to gain time, which is a delicious prospect for spectators of the race.
With 89 seconds separating Roglic in first and Chaves in eighth, there are still plenty of factors and actors at play in the general classification fight. And who knows? Maybe it will have a GC battle to rival that at the Tour or Giro...