Covering the twenty-one stages in less time than all his peloton mates, it is overwhelmingly logical. We assume that Remco is aware of this. The problem comes in how to achieve it if in front of you there is a duo that already destroyed completely Tadej Pogačar in the 2022 Tour de France. That cyclist whom they managed to defeat against all odds came from being the master of cycling almost on his own. The UAE rider led the classification with some authority, showing his potential on the cobblestones and confirming his power in both uphill finishes. Vingegaard acted as a rebel in Planche des Belles Filles, an area of fond memory for Tadej.
But that morning of July 13, no one expected such an event. Neither did Jumbo, not even in the best version of their dreams. Then the two captains of the Dutch team managed to isolate their rival to ‘abuse’ him through their numerical superiority, which made the difference that day and ultimately put the ball of initiative in the court of a Pogačar who was already in the must of trying the impossible to win the race for ten long days. Goodbye surprise factor, goodbye playing dead like so many others. That is why sometimes it is better to appear weak so that rivals think that victory is close and easy. And overconfidence does the rest.
That does not apply here, since we are referring to two cyclists, Primoz Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard, who have very clear objectives and will hardly miss an opportunity. Jumbo Visma has being a giant lately, their morale is through the roof and the operation of beating them in a grand tour is complicated at high levels. One of them may fail, since the season has been busy and intense for both and no one is free from having a bad day. But for both of them to fail seems like a chimera that Remco Evenepoel surely doesn’t even consider. And if not, there will be Sepp Kuss, who has to be dismantled somehow.
The length of the time trial seems to be decreasing at times. The American could emerge as the leader from that stage with all the high mountains to be visited. And with two monsters on his back that have already caused the occurrences of seeing the three Jumbos on the final podium in Madrid. At least, it goes through anyone’s imagination. With all this panorama, a plan is needed, a path to glory that allows the Belgian to add his second title in the Vuelta a España. It won’t be easy at all, Roglič is four out of four in 2023 and threatens with a bowling strike that would make the search for an equal or better season complicated. Not impossible though.
Comparison with the 2022 duel
Starting with the time trial, where Evenepoel is supposed to have the best options to obtain time advantage over everyone else, the plan will 100% require some fortune, not depending on himself if he does not leave Valladolid with ‘La Roja’ on his shoulders. If Kuss or Roglič come ahead of him in the general classification after the time trial the schemes would be quite different, that for sure would be difficult to repair. Remco has to show the best version of himself over the 25 kilometer stage and speed up each avenue to inflict punishment on his rivals. Expand the margins to obtain as much income as possible.
In 2022 the mountain and the rivals were very different. Enric Mas is not as complete as Roglič, to whom he dealt a good moral and time gap in the Alicante time trial. The Slovenian looks sharper than ever in the 2023 Vuelta and it is no coincidence. He knows that the race is going to be played on ramps like Larrau or Angliru, and that in those small mountains like Bejes there may be some key seconds that can come out from those small details.
This can generate a small consequences in the time trial, all in relative terms, of course. 25 kilometers of time trial that contrasts with the 25 kilometers at higher than 8% gradients in the Tourmalet stage, for example, the 20 the next day on the way to Larra-Belagua, or the 22 on the day of Cruz de Linares. The balance seems to really express where the main Vuelta’s battle will be taking place. The weight of the high mountains will have little to do with 2022, where Remco resisted climbers like Colombian Miguel Ángel López or Spaniard Enric Mas thanks to the distance he took over them in the time trial.
Over Roglič the difference was 48 seconds that day, although in the first high finishes Evenepoel showed a couple of gears more than the leader of the Jumbo. That safety net allowed him to maneuver with his head. But also, although Astana and the UAE tried, the distant attacks taking advantage of their numerical superiority were ineffective due to the lack of hardness of the ramps those last days. That doesn’t happen in 2023, where the mountains are much crueler.
High mountains, the red zone for Remco
In stages where tactics should not count too much, such as Laguna Negra or Bejes because they are stages with merely only one climb, the fight will be head to head. There Remco does not have much to lose, because the losses, as happened in Javalambre, will always be slight in case of weakness or lack of calculation in efforts. They will be five kilometer fights maximum that will be practically reduced to the last push, the last kilometer. Roglič is the best there, but Evenepoel is not exactly weak. It can be said that, as he demonstrated on the ramps of Xorret de Catí, he can handle this type of stages perfectly.
The problem will come in the three hardest days, where the previous climbs will be as important or more important than the final one. On the day Aubisque, Spandelles and Tourmalet are climbed, the first two offer very hard climbs and very technical descents. If Remco is confident in his way of descending, he must put pressure on his rivals in these sections. Primoz is also good downhill, Jonas not so much. If the weather is adverse, it is another factor that may affect him less than his rivals. Vingegaard works better in the heat than in the cold, as demonstrated by his direct duels with Pogačar.
The two Pyrenees stages are by far the two worst for Evenepoel, since Jumbo Visma can exercise its superiority. They are all very tough climbs, but in no case they do have large impossible slopes, where the Belgian could control the situation much better. A strong time trial man like him is capable of maintaining distance from an attacker that he has in his field of vision, and on high percentage ramps the distance with the breakaway is less in meters. The smartest way to race in this case would be to try to take the race to the last climb in any case. Let Jumbo resort to a predictable tactic of control and finishing in the last col attacks.
With the satisfactory experience of the 2022 Tour, this should not occur in the Tourmalet stage, nor in the Belagua one, where the intermediate mountain passes are enough to put the leader of the Soudal Quick Step in tactical difficulties. If they start launching alternating attacks, Remco may have a problem, since he will not be able to face them all and he will have to let go at least one of the three wheels that at this moment he must follow. In that chess game he has little to gain. Another option is for him to get alliances and divide the work. But it doesn’t seem like it’s the most likely option right now.
With a lot of intelligence and coolness, the tactic in these two stages should be to resist the movements of their rivals at his very own pace. If he chases the attacks, he is finished in this Vuelta, because Vingegaard will find the ideal terrain for his skills as a long-distance climber, with longer and less explosive climbs. These are race heights where Roglič should still be at his 100% and Jumbo is not going to let that to be forgotten. If he manages to force and cause them a minimum of confusion, Evenepoel will have a lot to gain.
Drops, cuts, escapes, feints of movement, fakings, taking the initiative. An attempt at the beginning of the stage, an attack on the descent so that their rivals do not feed themselves properly, sneak men into the breakaway and take them down with great fanfare so that the Jumbos are the ones waiting to act. In short, gain time, change the pace and eat up kilometers in the stages to reduce the red zone as much as they can. In this way, the damage Jumbo can cause will always be less. The closer to the goal the two (or three) against one occurs, the better. Because in the last climbs there is always the possibility of forgetting about wheels to follow in an Induráin style.
Angliru, the key
It’s the only place Evenepoel can have any kind of advantage. Tactics will not work here. In the hardest percentages, it consists of reducing that moment of danger as much as possible in distance. If the race is launched with three to go, better than four. Once it happens, or when he enters a distance where Remco knows that by calculating the effort he can maintain a pace to the top, accelerate and up without looking back. There are no wheels there and each rider will climb with their own strength. In that context he has to take advantage to stock up on seconds in order to win the overall in Madrid.
We must not forget that Roglič lost the lead and suffered the previous time the Asturian colossus was included in the Vuelta. Vingegaard was already around in the role of domestique. The Dane has his chance to win the Vuelta if the Slovenian fails even slightly. The following stage will be a different matter, the queen of Asturias. The last two climbs, which are practically consecutive with a dangerous descent in between, offer ground for tactics. In this descent he should put tension and cause his rivals to make errors in their feeding or to take fewer risks. Weather can be key.
Last stage, day to become ‘the Red bullet’
Discounting the pointless stage to Madrid, the last competitive one can have a lot to say. Let’s think that Remco is capable of reaching that twentieth stage as a leader. Let the Belgian forget about sleeping peacefully the night before. It is again a day where tactics will prevail over strength, which will also be an important factor, of course. More than 200 kilometers, nine classified climbs with little slope (except for the last one) and the opportunity to filter out three men in the breakaways. An incredible day to be a spectator. Whoever arrives as a leader can prepare his companions for an all-in battle.
In that case of not going first, perhaps Remco will have to let himself go in one of the previous stages to be third in the general classification. Why? So that he has the chance to make a gap without being closely marked and so take advantage of a minimum space of doubt and gaze between the two teams that are ahead in the overall. An example. If Enric Mas is second with Jonas Vingegaard in first position, Movistar would be forced to pull in front of the bunch just as much as Jumbo to maintain options and positions. If they didn’t, he would force Jumbo to do it. The easiest thing is for both of them to collaborate, but what if not?
Playing phychology with Jumbo’s nervous system
We must not forget one factor: no one knows who the leader of the Jumbo Visma team is in this Vuelta 2023. Not even the actors themselves. Therefore, playing with that card in which egos and conflicting objectives can appear can be a very good idea. A large part of the victory can lie in that psychical aspect. Since the Belgian will not exactly be remembered for his caution when it comes to expressing himself verbally in front of mics, he can use that characteristic to put pressure on rivals or just put it away from him.
The flat stages can also be important, with the threat of wind and the opportunity to rely on the only terrain where Evenepoel’s team is better than that of Vingegaard and Roglič, which is the flat. There the men of Soudal Quick Step can pave the way so that their leader can even march alone if the situation is chaotic. It would not be the first time that the number one puts all of his favorites in check in this field.
Remco Evenepoel has a chance of winning the 2023 Vuelta a España, of course. But unless he is clearly superior to his opponents, a fact that seems to have no place at the moment, he will have to be based on tactics, based on day by day and moment by moment, concentration and intelligence as he must do it. Take the three Jumbos to the Belgian’s field and have them move at the appropriate distances for their capabilities. The problem of competing with a team like Soudal at the moment means being inferior in that aspect. And to balance that problem a mental battle is necessary. Besides, Remco seems willing to fight.
Written by Jorge Matesanz
Photos: Unipublic / Sprintcyclingagency