Remco Evenepoel, the defending champion of La Vuelta, has changed his race programme in order to defend his title, and at the very start of the 2023 season it was not expressly planned that Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal would be at the official start in Barcelona either, unlike Richard Carapaz who was due to go there after the Tour de France.
Faced with the Jumbo-Visma duo of Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard, for whom everything went as they wished at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, four other Grand Tour winners are preparing for La Vuelta.
There were eight of them in Utrecht last year: already Roglic and Carapaz, Jai Hindley, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Chris Froome, but the last three had excluded themselves from the list of favourites, as they were rather in the twilight of their careers, even if the Briton wasn’t within two months of his sporting retirement like the Italian and the Spaniard.
Evenepoel’s career plan was all mapped out: La Vuelta 22, Giro d’Italia 2023, Tour de France 2024 (with a Monaco-Nice time trial as a conclusion, on the Belgian national day). This fine schedule was disrupted by a Covid-19 infection halfway through the Giro, when he had just reclaimed the pink jersey thanks to a narrower-than-usual time trial victory.
Less than a week after his withdrawal, Patrick Lefévère ruled out the possibility of taking part in another Grand Tour this year, due to a lack of time to prepare for the Tour de France and because “nobody would accept any result from him other than the final victory in La Vuelta because he’s already won it”, argued the manager of Soudal-Quick Step, who has since changed his mind under pressure from his protégé, who on 10 July told his fans: “See you in Barcelona”.
“When I see the level at which he has returned and the desire he shows, I can only grant his request,” explained the Belgian. “Remco wants to take on big challenges.” And he lives in Spain now, in the Community of Valencia.
The cycling calendar meant that he was the world champion just over ten months instead of twelve, between his triumph in Australia, after La Vuelta 22, and his twenty-fifth place in Scotland on a circuit hardly suited to him, following his third title in the San Sebastian Classic.
Unless he takes a distinctive jersey at the end of the inaugural team time trial, he will wear the Belgian champion’s jersey for Elite road racing for the first time at the start of stage 2 in Mataró on August 27.
Like Evenepoel, Thomas had the Giro as his main objective for 2023 after having occupied every podium place in the Tour de France: first in 2018, second in 2019, third in 2022. In the time trial on the eve of the grand finale in Rome, he cruelly lost the pink jersey he had been wearing since Remco’s withdrawal, with the exception of a two-day interlude by Bruno Armirail, to Primoz Roglic by just fourteen seconds.
After speculating about a rematch at the La Vuelta two days after the Giro, the Welshman made his participation official on 22 June, in the Watts Occurring podcast that he hosts with team-mate Luke Rowe.
His one and only appearance in the Spanish three-week race was not a memorable one, given that he has eighteen Grand Tours to his name. That was in 2015. As he did then in the Tour de France at the time, he had to ride at the service of Chris Froome, who suffered a fractured foot mid-race in Andorra, but he didn’t find any space to express himself after that, with his best place being twelfth in the Burgos time trial, 2’28’’ behind Tom Dumoulin (and 69th in the final overall classification).
Aged 37, Thomas knows his time is running out and if he returns to La Vuelta, it’s with the feeling that he hasn’t yet explored all the possibilities professional cycling has on offer. He has geared up seriously, both at altitude and at the Tour of Poland (third in the time trial held as a test before the world championship).
Geraint Thomas hasn’t raced a Grand Tour with Egan Bernal since the 2019 Tour de France, where they finished second and first respectively. The year before, when he joined Team Sky, the Colombian was possibly due to make his three-week race debut at La Vuelta 18, as was only logical in the promising career of a climber from the Andes mountain range, but after his victory in the Tour of California in May, the British team, fearing a shortage of mountain power while Chris Froome was struggling at the Giro, which he ended up winning, selected him for the Tour de France. And he proved invaluable to Thomas!
Since then, the prodigy from Zipaquirá has won the 2021 Giro, from which he hadn’t fully recovered when he took part in La Vuelta 21 two and a half months later: sixth overall, still 13’27’’ down on Roglic, and his best stage finish was fourth on the Alto del Gamoniteiru. He even lost the white jersey of best young rider at the very end, overtaken by the late Gino Mäder.
He is still in the process of rebuilding his body and his shape after his terrible accident in January 2022. After finishing 36th in the recent Tour de France, he concluded positively: “The race pace I picked would have been impossible to reach in training.” As a result, he declared himself highly motivated for a return to La Vuelta, while remaining cautious about his performance targets.
Of the six Grand Tour winners who have expressed their intention to take part in La Vuelta 23, Richard Carapaz is the only one, along with Roglic, to have already been on the podium in all three: winner of the Giro in 2019 and second in 2022, second in La Vuelta 20 and third in the Tour de France 2021. Last year, after a tricky start to the Spanish race, he shifted his ambitions to stage wins (three) and inherited the blue polka-dot jersey after Jay Vine crashed.
As soon as he joined the EF Education-EasyPost team last winter, he scheduled two Grand Tours. La Vuelta remains his only chance of doing one and finishing on a Grand Tour podium for the fifth year in a row, as he crashed on stage 1 of the Tour de France at the same time as Enric Mas on the descent of El Vivero in Bilbao.
He returned to Ecuador to treat a small fracture in his kneecap. His entire 2023 season will be decided from Barcelona to Madrid. – www.lavuelta.es