Soudal-Quick-Step's riders in the dark, backlit by a follow-car's lights.

Pain and rain in Spain: The Vuelta stumbles through turbulent opening

Crashes, grim weather, racing in the dark – all 'another day in paradise' for the riders of the Vuelta a España.

Soudal-Quick-Step near the finish of the opening team time trial on Saturday.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 29.08.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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We’re three days into the Vuelta a España, and there’s been enough drama to last three weeks. Team leaders have been felled by crashes; the peloton has been battered by brutal weather; last year’s winner soared into the leader’s jersey and then into an onlooker; heck, there was even a team time trial conducted in the dark. 

All of which is to say: Joe Lindsey’s ode last week to the unpredictability of “the un-Grandest Tour” is looking pretty prescient, maybe bordering on the rose-tinted. There’s been lots going on, not all of it good, much of it kind of mesmerising in a train-crash kind of way. 

To recap: Saturday, an opening team time trial conducted in pounding rain in Barcelona, with reigning champion Remco Evenepoel’s Soudal Quick-Step team the last to set off down the start ramp at 8.19pm – 16 minutes before sunset, timed to coincide with the evening peak in TV viewership. What was doubtless envisaged as a gold-tinged haze was anything but; the Vuelta’s organisers (Unipublic and ASO) hadn’t anticipated the possibility of a late summer storm, or made any moves to mitigate its effects. In the intricate dance of a team time trial, with riders racing centimetres from the rear wheel of the teammate in front of them, that meant that riders were navigating a technical course through city streets in pouring rain and – by the time Soudal Quick-Step set off last – in near-darkness. 

UAE Team Emirates finish their team time trial in driving rain, the lead rider looking unhappy.
UAE Team Emirates having a lovely time.

Team after team crossed the line looking shellshocked, some of them scattered by crashes – almost all of Jayco Alula went down at one point, to choose one example. Soudal Quick-Step finished as dark silhouettes in the lights of the cars behind them, Evenepoel sarcastically throwing an “OK” symbol ? at the cameras after dismounting. “You really don’t see shit”, he shouted, while a soigneur tried to calm him down. “If you don’t say anything about it, nothing will be done about it,” Evenepoel responded. It was, he later said, “life and death in the wheel. This was just ridiculous. It was super dangerous. The organisation must think about safety. You couldn’t see a metre in front of you.” His teammate Louis Vervaeke was similarly forthright: “It’s super dangerous, ridiculous, we’re not monkeys in a circus,” he said. As if to underline the farcical nature of the situation, pictures emerged later of riders setting off into the gloom without lights to ride to their hotels. 

Hardly the ideal opening to the Spanish Grand Tour, with race director Javier Guillén characterising it only as a meteorological surprise. “The darkness that came was the result of a storm that forecasts didn’t indicate would be of that magnitude,” Guillén said. “And concerning what Evenepoel said, we remind everyone that the safety of the riders is paramount.”  

A day later, weather remained a concern, with an extreme weather protocol being enacted after appeals from a handful of key riders and the management of UAE Team Emirates. The effective finish line as it applied to the GC battle was shifted from actual finish to the top of the Montjuic climb, 3.6 km out, and then to 9 km from the end of the stage. That prompted mixed reactions in the peloton – in fact, even within teams. Over at Ineos Grenadiers, a typically straight-talking Geraint Thomas said that the riders were “just pawns in the game – we are not happy with it … This isn’t any sort of compromise. There was no sort of apology or anything.”

Meanwhile, Jumbo-Visma DS Merijn Zeeman said after the finish that the shift was “courageous”, while Jonas Vingegaard was fairly scathing beforehand. “It doesn’t change anything today,” he said. “It’s still going to be chaotic all the way to Montjuic, with many turns and very slippery roads … it seems like the UCI or race organisers are unyielding. It seems as if they don’t care about our safety,” he said. 

A terse-looking Vingegaard prior to the start of stage 2.

In the opening stages of this Vuelta, Remco Evenepoel – still just 23 years old, but with two World Championships and a Grand Tour title under his belt – has belied his age by being one of the most outspoken voices in the peloton about the chaotic scenes that they are navigating. On stage 2 he was in accord with his GC rivals, telling reporters that “it makes no sense to take the times at the top of the climb …  we asked to take the time at the start of the circuit but they completely ignored it, they blew off that request. I feel after yesterday the bunch deserved a bit more respect from the organisation, but it looks like they are still not listening to us.” Another day in paradise, he described it as, tongue firmly in cheek.

The reality on the road – and for viewers – was a peloton soft-pedalling up the final climb, having battled with dreadful conditions all stage and even encountering salt in the wound in the form of tacks on the road. Among the big names to hit the ground were Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Geraint Thomas, while the overnight leader Lorenzo Milesi lost more than seven minutes after being felled by a crash and his DSM-Firmenich teammate Oscar Onley withdrew with a suspected broken collarbone. 

Rui Oliveira of UAE Team Emirates looks at a tear in his shorts and bloodied hip after a crash on stage 2.
Rui Oliveira assesses the damage after a crash on stage 2.

To stage 3, where the sun finally came out as the Vuelta ventured into Andorra for its first mountaintop finish. Having gapped his rivals in the final run to the finish line, Evenepoel celebrated his stage win for all of five seconds before ploughing into the pack of media, team staff and personnel waiting just after the finish line, downhill around a gently curving corner. A female staff member of Andorra Police went flying when hit by Evenepoel, with the young Belgian landing next to a metal fence where he was helped up, before blood bloomed from a cut on his brow.  Fortunately, it looked worse than it was.

Evenepoel sitting on the ground at the end of stage 3, surrounded by team staff. He has blood all down the side of his face after crashing.
Evenepoel after the finish of stage 3.

“Again, some things of safety,” a visibly irritated Evenepoel said in a post-finish interview. “It was only 50 metres after the finish line, and it’s the third day in a row. It’s a bit breaking my balls now.” Some time later, blood cleaned from his face and in the comfort of the team bus, Evenepoel offered hopes that the woman he crashed into was doing OK, said that he was alright himself, and thanked fans for their support. “Keep cheering for us, because we will need all of it during the next few weeks,” he said, perhaps speaking about the GC battle ahead but, perhaps, thinking about the shared tribulations of the entire peloton too. [According to Sticky Bottle: the woman Evenepoel crashed into, identified as ‘Jasmine’, emerged from the medical truck later with her arm in a sling but otherwise appeared to be OK.]

The Vuelta a España continues in Andorra today, with clear and mild conditions expected. However, after an opening stanza comprised of weather woes, crashes and rider disenchantment, race organisers are suffering a bit of a goodwill deficit. They’ll be hoping the tide will turn, and hopefully taking lessons from missteps along the way.

In the meantime, for riders bearing the fatigue and wounds of a tense opening, this Vuelta has been – to paraphrase a sarcastic Evenepoel – day after day in paradise.

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