Roglic on brink of La Vuelta triumph, Pogacar wins Stage 20
Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic will be crowned champion of La Vuelta on Sunday after finishing a solid fifth in the final mountain test, expertly won by his compatriot Tadej Pogacar with a memorable solo charge onto the final podium.
Days before his 21st birthday, Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) came of age by riding clear of Roglic and the race favourites with 39km remaining of the 190.4km Stage 20 through the Sierra de Gredos mountain range west of Madrid.
Pogacar maintained his lead on the sixth and final climb of the Plataforma de Gredos to solo to his third win of the Vuelta and secure both the white jersey and third spot on the final podium.
Jumbo-Visma’s Roglic kept his cool and weathered a flurry of attacks to finish at the back of a select chase group to retain the red jersey ahead of Sunday’s final stage into Madrid. The 29-year-old Slovenian enters Stage 21 with a lead of 2’33” over the world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Spanish veteran Valverde led the chase on Pogacar to preserve his runner-up spot on the general classification, outkicking Poland’s Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the Austrian Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain-Merida) for second place at 1’32”.
After a third stage victory in his maiden Grand Tour, the scarily impressive Pogacar not only moved above Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) in the white jersey youth classification, but bumped the 2016 Vuelta champion Nairo Quintana (Movistar) off the final podium. Pogacar came within 22 seconds of 39-year-old Valverde on GC with Quintana dropping to fourth at 3’46” and Lopez fifth at 4’48”.
Roglic will also be crowned winner of the green jersey points classification, while the Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) secured the polka dot king of the mountains classification.
Britain's James Knox (Deceuninck-QuickStep) suffered on the succession of climbs after crashing heavily in the previous stage, the 23-year-old knocked painfully out of the top 10 by just 21 seconds by Spain's Mikel Nieve of Mitchelton-Scott.
The 74th edition of La Vuelta concludes on Sunday with the largely processional Stage 21 into Madrid, which will conclude with a city centre sprint - and a chance for Ireland’s Sam Bennett to secure his own hat-trick of sprint wins.
Stage 20: Arenas de San Pedro to Plataforma de Gredos - how it happened
Already crowned the youngest winner of a WorldTour race in taking the Tour of California in May - a triumph he could not even celebrate with a legal beer - Pogacar, the youngest rider in the Vuelta and still six days shy of his 21st birthday, underlined that he was a future Grand Tour contender by completing an extraordinary hat-trick of stage wins and rise to third on GC on the penultimate day of the race.
The decisive stage of this year’s Vuelta featured six categorised climbs in the Sierra de Gredos mountain range west of Madrid and represented the final chance for Roglic’s rivals for red to throw a cat among the pigeons.
Starting in the province of Ávila and finishing with the Vuelta’s first ever finish on the scenic Castilian mountain pass of Plataforma de Gredos, the 190.4km stage was frantic from the outset and pulverised with intermittent showers.
A group of 10 riders went clear ahead of the Cat.1 Puerto de Pedro Bernardo (18.4km at 4.4%) before Astana, Movistar and Ineos threw down the hammer behind to give Jumbo-Visma a taste of things to come.
The team of the race leader was forced to put out a succession of fires - even when the heavens opened to spark a collective reach for rain capes. Luis Leon Sanchez, Omar Fraile, Jakob Fuglsang and both Ion and Gorka Izagirre were particularly active for Astana - but on each occasion, they met their match in covering attacks from Jumbo-Visma on the long, but gentle climb.
It was the Spaniard Sergio Samitier (Euskadi-Murias) who took maximum points over the top, effectively securing the polka dot jersey title for Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard of Ag2R-La Mondiale.
Not present in the break, Bouchard’s KoM tally became unreachable - even if that did not deter a late move on the climb from his polka-dot rival Angel Madrazo of Burgos-BH.
The Spaniard had attacked from the pack near the summit but it was too little, too late as the break went over with a lead of over a minute.
After barely a few kilometres of descent, the road headed back uphill for the Cat.2 Puerto de Serranillos (9km at 4.8%), which Samitier crested in pole position once again - this time at the front of a break which had been whittled down to seven riders.
As the race finally settled behind, Samitier made it a hat-trick of summits with maximum points on the Cat.2 Alto de Navatalgordo (3km at 7.2%). By now he rode with just three riders - Damien Howson (Mitchelton-Scott), Ruben Guerreiro (Katusha Alpecin) and Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) - and an advantage of only 55 seconds.
This advantage soon stretched out when Jumbo-Visma took control of the reduced pack and a temporary ceasefire ensued. Already highly active in the opening hour, Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos) took advantage of the lull to kick clear with 115km remaining.
The British youngster caught the four leaders just ahead of another downpour and as the gap extended north of four minutes.
Onto the next test, the Cat.3 Puerto de Chia (3km at 4%), and Frenchman Edet - who wore the red jersey for one day earlier in the race - upset the apple cart by denying Samitier a fourth scalp going over the top.
Behind, there was a sudden increase in tempo - and a resulting shake-out - when Astana flocked to the front to take over the reins, soon reducing the gap by a couple of minutes.
On the Cat.1 Puerto de Pena Negra (14.2km at 5.9%), the two stand-out climbers of the break took matters into their own hands as Guerreiro followed an attack by Geoghegan Hart.
Former team-mates from the Axeon Hagens Berman continental team, there was no love lost between the Briton and the Portuguese back in Stage 15 when they argued in the wake of winner Sepp Kuss.
In any case, the battle for podium positions behind soon rendered their contribution to the stage to a mere footnote in proceedings.
After a series of softening attacks by his Astana team-mates, Lopez did the inevitable - sparking a response by the other riders in the top five of GC.
When things came back together, and the remnants of the break had been caught, Pogacar made his move, dancing clear during a momentary ceasefire with 39km remaining. In response, Valverde put in a stinging attack - although bizarrely pulled up when no one followed.
Pogacar soon caught up with the two leaders, dropping Geoghegan Hart first, then Guerreiro as he continued his ride up the virtual classification.
Movistar regrouped behind and led the chase for Valverde and Quintana through Spaniards Marc Soler and Antonio Pedrero. But the gap was 1’37” as Pogacar went over the blustery, misty summit with a tidy lead.
Adding a few bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint, Pogacar started the final climb, the Cat.3 Plataforma de Gredos (9.4km at 3.8%), with his lead intact.
The succession of attacks never came - and although the chase group thinned out, it was Pernsteiner and his fellow Austrian Felix Grossschartner who made most noise, the latter working for his Bora team-mate Majka.
Lopez, for whom Astana had worked tirelessly all day but whose numerous attacks had come to nothing, was first to tire, dropping off the pace alongside compatriot Quintana with 4km remaining to see the white jersey slip between his fingers.
Up ahead, the gap had not come down, and Pogacar drove to the finish in pursuit of the seconds that may have taken him to second place. In the end, Valverde kept hold of that spot, but Pogacar was the star of the day with his third stage win - and the white jersey secured as he rose from fifth to third.
For his part, Roglic eased up near the line to finish a few seconds behind the chasers - comfortable in the knowledge that the Vuelta was all but won.
Baring terrible misfortune, the 29-year-old former ski jumper will ride into Madrid on Sunday to secure his - and his emerging Jumbo-Visma team’s - first Grand Tour win.
With the Dutchman Tom Dumoulin set to join the Dutch team in 2020, Roglic’s timely victory will be reminder to Team Ineos - who themselves have captured the Giro champion Richard Carapaz to ride alongside Tour champion Bernal - that things will not be plain sailing.
And with Pogacar himself some two years younger than Bernal, all the talk of an era of domination for the affable Colombian in the world’s biggest bike race may be a little premature.
Coming up: Stage 21 - Fuenlabrada to Madrid
A flat 106.6km run into the Spanish capital which should see the likes of Sam Bennett and Fabio Jakobsen battle it out for the sprint spoils in Madrid before Roglic is crowned the Vuelta winner.