Race Breakdown: The Itzulia Basque Country was won on the final stage, which sounds familiar, by Primoz Roglič. The Slovenian champion pulled the victory away from Brandon McNulty in what was a nightmare stage for the UAE Team Emirates. Spencer Martin breaks the Spanish race down and looks at the implications for the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France.
Gaudu took the stage, but Roglič the overall honors
Primoz Roglič won the overall at the Tour of the Basque Country on Saturday with a thrilling long-range attack on the final stage, while David Gaudu, the only rider able to hang with the man-on-a-mission, took stage honors after a short, but extremely explosive and mountainous, 112-kilometer stage.
Basque stage 6 start – Before it all went wrong for UAE
UAE Team Emirates went into the stage with Brandon McNulty in the race leader by 23-seconds over Roglič and 24-seconds over his Jumbo teammate Jonas Vingegaard, while McNulty’s teammate, Tadej Pogačar, was 43-seconds back. On stage 4, it appeared as though they had thoroughly outsmarted and outmuscled Jumbo by sending McNulty up the road to take the race lead, but with 68km-to-go on the final stage, Astana attacked over the top of a climb and pulled out a gap on the descent that launched Roglič’s attack on the following climb.
Astana and Jumbo split the race
McNulty taking the race lead on stage 4 meant there was initially indecision from Pogačar as to whether he should stay with McNulty or go all-in to chase Roglič, and this hesitation due to the overall position of his teammates ended up costing him a shot at overall victory. While he did eventually abandon McNulty to forge on, it was simply too late to catch Roglič. The confusion around team hierarchy not only cost Pogačar a chance to win the overall classification but has also potentially severely damaged intra-team relationships.
McNulty making his move on stage 4
Considering how sideways things had seemed to have gone for Jumbo on Thursday’s stage 4 when McNulty grabbed the race lead from Roglič, it was fascinating to watch events unfold that drastically turned their respective fortunes around by the end of Saturday’s final stage.
It was UAE and McNulty’s race to lose
Where the Race Was Won
- The race was won with 66km-to-go on stage 6 when Astana attacked and split the peloton on a descent. Roglic was right on their wheels and was able to catch on while Pogačar and McNulty weren’t aware enough and caught too far back.
- The Basque roads are perfect for these short, exciting stages. The climbs are short enough that they reward attacking riding and the descents fast and technical enough to reward daredevil descenders.
- Beyond his better positioning on the decisive descent, Roglič won this race by simply out-riding Pogačar between 43km-to-go and the finish line. At 43km-to-go, the gap was 30-seconds. Compare this to the 35-second gap to Roglič at the finish, and we can see Roglic rode just a slightly better pursuit race for the final 1.5 hours of racing.
The winning move from Pogačar
Where the Race was Lost
- UAE seemed so concerned about an attack on the climb between 74km-68km-to-go that they let their foot off the gas as soon as that climb crested, which is exactly where they were ambushed and in turn, lost the race.
Pogačar essentially pulled the chase group from 60km out to the finish with varying levels of dedication and still only finished 35-seconds back. If he had solely focused on closing the gap after the descent where the split was made, it is very likely he could have closed it down.
- However, it is unlikely that he could have dropped both Roglič and Vingegaard on the final climb after doing this.
- In the end, the weak point in Pogačar’s armor was his teammate, and this will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. I’m almost certain there was a conversation in the Astana team bus pre-stage regarding how McNulty would struggle to descend as fast as them at full gas. An American in the leader’s jersey at one of the most technically demanding races on the calendar is essentially an open invitation to attack.
- And things have to be a little frosty between McNulty and Pogacar, especially after today’s fiasco. Oddly, in the end, McNulty’s strength ended up being Pogačar’s weak point and this shows the major flaw in the ‘let the road decide’ strategy. They got stuck between two leaders and the indecisiveness after the gap to Roglič formed cost them dearly.
- If UAE would have made a firm commitment pre-stage to Pogačar as a leader and McNulty would have worked to pull him back to the lead group, they certainly would have gotten within a few seconds by the base of the final climb and then Pogačar could have attacked to bridge the gap on the early slopes of the climb and then possibly even drop most, if not all, of the lead group.
McNulty in trouble
- While Astana and Movistar made the race, they eventually dropped themselves and missed the winning move. This begs the question of why? What were they thinking? Did they really need to work in the valley after splitting the race? Probably not, and it wasn’t smart to pull Roglič to the base of the following climb, but they had to try something, and if Valverde wanted to win the stage, he needed to distance Pogačar before the final climb, and if Ion Izagirre wanted to podium, he had to take big risks.
- But from a pure optics perspective, they launched Roglič’s long-range attack and then he systematically dropped them one-by-one. In fact, Astana’s leader, Ion Izagirre was dropped with around 46km-to-go. They had to try something, but getting so thoroughly worked over by Roglič after splitting the race and pulling him really wasn’t a great look.
- Pogacar got within 30-seconds of the leaders on the final climb, even though he spent large portions of the valley before yelling at the others for not working. If he had simply focused on riding as hard as possible and forgot about the others, he could possibly have closed the gap before the climb.
- By putting Hirschi in the break and pacing behind, UAE was essentially using two riders at once, which ended up really costing them later on. If they had a “fresh” Hirschi to chase back to Roglic, they could have probably closed down that gap.
- What is odd is that if they were going to use this strategy, why not attempt to put Pogačar in the early break to put pressure on Jumbo?
- It is important to remember that just because Jumbo took first and second in the overall and absolutely destroyed UAE on the final stage, it doesn’t mean their overall strategy was necessarily good. Also, they still seem to be having extreme variance in their team performance from day-to-day that they will need to sort out in the coming months.
- On this note, Roglič was isolated at key points in the finale of stages 2, 3, 4 & 6. At some points, it was due to his team simply not being strong enough, but on others, it was due to them being up ahead of him. This isolation at key moments shows the flip-side of keeping multiple riders high up on GC throughout a stage race.
- Ineos went from looking dominant at Volta Catalunya to pedestrian all week here. Adam Yates was the only rider putting in a consistently respectable performance, while. Carapaz, their supposed leader at the Tour, looked to be off-the-pace. With Yates outperforming Carapaz at every race this season, it will get harder and harder to keep him out of a Tour leadership position.
Roglič in Liège
- Roglič certainly has to be feeling good about defending his Liège-Bastogne-Liège title in two weeks’ time.
- Additionally, outside of his team’s tactical boondoggle, Pogačar looked incredible all week and also has to be considered a favorite at Liege. Remember, he could have won last year if not for Alaphilippe’s errant sprint.
- However, it is debatable if it is a good idea for them to be this fit for the Ardennes Classics. Nobody has won Liege and the Tour in the same year since Eddy Merckx in 1975.
- Marc Hirschi was supposed to lead UAE at the Ardennes, but he hasn’t looked the same after the contentious and shocking exit from his old DSM team, so Pogačar will likely have to carry the team whether he wants to or not.
Roglič/Pogačar 2021 Tour battle
- Jonas Vingegaard gets the best result of his career and is looking like a great replacement for Dumoulin, for this year’s Tour as well as the future.
- It is becoming increasingly clear that this summer’s Tour de France is shaping up to be a two-man race. Adam Yates destroyed the competition at the recent Volta Catalunya, but finished a distant 4th place here and was never in a position to seriously challenge a stage or overall win.
- Also, Jumbo finally has a clear roadmap for beating Pogačar. His team has always been his greatest weakness, but the tempo riding clinic they displayed at the 2020 edition did nothing to exploit this. However, the ‘satellite rider’ strategy they deployed on Saturday shows that to beat Pogačar, they have to race aggressively and from behind, even if they are technically in the lead. Also, if instead of Tolhoek and Oomen up the road, it was a high-up-in-the-GC Wout van Aert, the strategy would be even more potent.
- Roglic hadn’t beat Pogačar yet in the 2021 season but really saved the first win for quite the moment. This has to give him a lot of confidence going into the Ardennes.
- Shockingly, this is only Roglič’s second-ever GC win over Pogačar and first since the 2019 Vuelta, so this is a much-needed confidence boost at last year’s crushing Tour defeat to his younger countryman.
Pogačar and McNulty – Still friends?
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #