After Richard Carapaz became the first Ecuadorian winner of a Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia and Egan Bernal the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France, Primož Roglič has made history by becoming the first Slovenian to win a Grand Tour at La Vuelta a España. Aged 29, in only his fourth season at WorldTour level and after a career as a ski jumper, the Trebovlje native did not have as much time ahead of him to do so as his young compatriot Tadej Pogačar, who accompanied him on the final podium in Madrid after winning three stages before turning 21. The UCI World Champion Alejandro Valverde finished second aged 39, ten years after his overall win at La Vuelta!
“It’s a great feeling to win this race, and to be accompanied by another Slovenian is even better. It’s really nice for our cycling. We’re writing a bit of history. I’ll only know once I finish my career if it’s only the beginning before more successes. But to win one Grand Tour is already a nice achievement.” - Primož Roglič
The 2019 Vuelta didn’t start well for Roglič as he crashed, along with most of his Jumbo-Visma team, in the opening team time trial that launched the race from the spectacular Salinas de Torrevieja. Another surprise followed on stage 2 with Nairo Quintana winning on the flat finish of Calpe on the Mediterranean seaside, which was the first in the Colombian climber’s career. He started La Vuelta officially as the leader of the Movistar Team before Valverde reinstated himself at the helm of the Spanish squad.
Grand Tours are made of tactical games among the top champions but also give space to much lesser known cyclists. Prior to the opening ceremony of La Vuelta, Angel Madrazo (Spain) has nicely exposed his low-profile cycling status in a press conference reserved to the children who’d later participate in La Vuelta Junior Cofidis. But riding aggressively for the King of the Mountains blue polka dot jersey earned him a victory that was hard for anyone to predict atop the Javalambre observatory on stage 5. It was an amazing day for his Burgos-BH team, recording an unlikely one-two with Jetse Bol (NED).
In modern history, steep uphill finishes are La Vuelta’s trademark. Stage 7 to Mas de la Costa cleared up the field of the favorites as there was no defending champion (Britain’s Simon Yates) nor Giro d’Italia or Tour de France winner in contention. Four climbers reached the top of the cemented hill together: Valverde who took a second prestigious win with the rainbow jersey after stage 3 of the UAE Tour at Jebel Hafeet, Roglič, Miguel Angel “Superman” Lopez and Quintana. With Pogačar not far behind, it was obvious that the two remaining thirds of La Vuelta 19 would highlight riders from three countries: Slovenia, Spain and Colombia.
Lopez took La Roja (the red jersey) for the third time for one day only before his Astana team gave space to the breakaway on stage 8. Interestingly, Frenchman Nicolas Edet of Cofidis topped the overall classification in Igualada, precisely where his compatriot Bernard Hinault did so on his first Grand Tour victory in 1978.
This was the tenth edition of La Vuelta with the red jersey to designate the race leader. Quintana wore it in Pau where the Tour de France celebrated the 100 years of the yellow jersey on July 19. In the first time a town had hosted the time trials of two Grand Tours the same year, Roglic showed his superiority against the clock in the vineyards of Jurançon after Pogačar had claimed his first Grand Tour victory in Andorra, in what was set to be the queen stage with three gruelling climbs and an unprecedented section of gravel road.
At La Vuelta, the concept of the queen stage is often debatable. Philippe Gilbert reinvented it as he took his second win at Guadalajara after a flamboyant ride in Bilbao in the cycling-mad Basque country. The 219.6km race was contested – with the help of the wind, firstly side wind that split the peloton and put Roglic in danger and Quintana in favourable position, then a tailwind – at the average speed of 50.628km/h. This earns the Belgian cyclist the “ruban jaune”, a prize that was created in 1936 by Tour de France boss Henri Desgrange for the fastest winner of a race longer than 200km. The previous record belonged to Matteo Trentin with 49.641km/h at the 2015 Paris-Tours.
Roglič kept a solid grip on the overall lead but the fight went on till the end for the podium places, Lopez doing his best to dethrone Quintana but it was eventually Pogačar who made it after he became the second rider in the history of cycling to claim three stage wins in a single Grand Tour before turning 21, after Giuseppe Saronni at the 1978 Giro d’Italia. With Pogačar’s victories all having been in mountain top finishes, it says a lot about the future of the winner of the 2018 Tour de l’Avenir.