Defending Vuelta a España champion Remco Evenepoel remained resolutely upbeat at the Alto de Javalambre summit finish on Thursday after veering perilously close to cracking on the ascent before rallying in the closing kilometres and limiting his losses.
Evenepoel ceded the Vuelta overall lead to Lenny Martínez (Groupama-FDJ) on stage 6, but the Belgian had already stated earlier this week he’d planned to do so, in a bid to save his teammates energy defending la roja in the coming stages through ‘loaning’ it to a non-GC threat.
What was not planned, however, was Evenepoel finding himself unable to follow Primoz Roglic when his Slovenian rival launched a searing attack some four kilometres from the line.
The Belgian dug deep, though, to complete the stage just 30 seconds down on Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard, and he remains very much in contention for the overall victory.
“When the others went, I just went at my own pace and in the end it was 30 seconds slower than the fastest guys,” Evenepoel told reporters as he donned a rain jacket and waited to make the long descent to the team buses at the foot of the remote climb in the sierras of Teruel.
“I didn’t feel like I was going really all out, it felt more a controlled pace, but I just could not go over that limit. You just have some days like that and today it was my turn to not have the best legs.”
While Evenepoel’s willingness to talk to the press was another sign of his upbeat attitude about his jour sans, Soudal-QuickStep’s challenging day at the Vuelta office had actually begun long before the stage rolled out of the small town of Vall d’Uxo around midday.
A virus has reportedly found its way into the team – “We’re wearing plastic gloves at breakfast,” Evenepoel stated later – and its effetcts caused Andrea Baglioli, already 15 minutes down on Wednesday, to abandon early on.
A frenetic early first two hours of racing culminated with a massive break going up the road, with Jumbo-Visma putting no less than four riders in the move including potential GC dangerman Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). Other dark horses like Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), Wout Poels (Bahrain Victorious) and Lenny Martínez were also in the break and a long, weary day of chasing the break then ensued for the Belgian squad.
On the plus side for Soudal-QuickStep, they had managed to put Louis Vervaeke and Mattea Cattaneo in the move, at least partly tempering their rivals’ aggression, and Vervaeke, despite his illness,…