There was no fairytale weekend to conclude Hugh Carthy’s Vuelta a España, but huge relief for Primoz Roglic after the Slovenian successfully defended the title he had won in 2019 in hugely different circumstances. In Madrid, the final sprint of the relaunched professional cycling season went to Pascal Ackermann of Bora-Hansgrohe after his fellow German Lisa Brennauer had earlier taken overall honours in the three-day Ceratizit Challenge, which finished on the same circuit based on the Paseo della Castellana.
After Saturday’s mountain stage up the Alto de Covatilla, Roglic had hung on to a slender 24sec lead over Ineos Grenadiers’ Richard Carapaz, and 47sec on the Lancastrian Carthy, who clinched the first Grand Tour podium of his career. It was the narrowest winning margin in the Vuelta since 1984, and the tightest of all three Grand Tours in 2020, but it was enough, given that both Carapaz and Carthy respected the tradition that the final road race stage should be a promenade followed by a mass sprint.
“We just enjoyed it,” said Roglic. “It was the last one to do before we finish [the season]. Every time you win it’s beautiful, it’s really hard. It’s impossible to compare [with last year] but I’m super happy. I don’t know if I’m the best Grand Tour rider, but for sure in this Vuelta I was the best.” His four stage wins in the race took his victory tally this year to 12, which would not disgrace a sprinter.
The former ski jumper could reflect on a season’s racing which had only begun in earnest when he won his national championships at the end of June, but where he had been indisputably the strongest for longest, if not quite strong enough at two key moments: the penultimate stage of the Tour de France on 19 September, where he was pipped by his fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar in a time trial, and the world road race championship eight days later where he was not quite strong enough to accompany Julian Alaphilippe when the Frenchman took flight.
On Saturday’s summit finish at Alto de Covatilla, Roglic had somehow survived a last-ditch attack from Carapaz which left him facing possible defeat with two km remaining, but he rallied to avoid losing the Vuelta in a similarly dramatic way as the Tour. That concluded a Vuelta in which the pair had swapped the race lead four times with the margin between them only counted in a handful of seconds until Roglic extended his lead to 45sec at Friday’s finish at Ciudad Rodrigo.
Carapaz was unlucky not to add the Vuelta to his 2019 Giro win; he looked the stronger climber, but did not have Roglic’s skill in snaffling time bonuses at the stage finishes. He actually covered the distance in a fractionally shorter time, but the 32secs advantage posted by Roglic in bonuses more than made the difference.
Another factor was the weakness of his Ineos team; whereas Roglic always had numbers of the Jumbo-Visma team around him, only Andrey Amador appeared alongside Carapaz at the toughest moments, and even he was missing in Saturday’s denouement at la Covatilla.
For Carthy, on the other hand, a first podium finish at a Grand Tour was above expectations, along with victory on the toughest mountain finish at El Angliru. The 26-year-old had looked to be one of the strongest climbers in the race as early as the stage one finish at Arrate, he showed few inhibitions as he continually pressed both Roglic and Carapaz in the mountains, and his strong showing capped a successful few months for his EF Pro Cycling team who took two other Vuelta stages to go with their stage victories at the Giro and Tour.
The final sprint was chaotic after the Irishman Sam Bennett’s Deceuninck – Quick-Step team lost control with three km remaining, allowing Ackermann’s Bora-Hansgrohe to take over lead-out duties. The German launched the sprint with 150m to go, and moved marginally to his left as Bennett opened up off his wheel.
That put the Irishman off his stride just sufficiently to hold him at a tyre’s-width at the line, but not quite enough to interest the race referees. For the sprinters, this kind of high speed manoeuvre is business as usual, but it concluded four months of racing which had been anything but routine.