The presence of Juan Ayuso and Carlos Rodríguez in the Vuelta a España this year has sparked a sense of optimism among Spanish cycling fans.
Spain have already broken their 122 stage win drought with two wins in three days and Enric Mas (Movistar) is currently ‘best of the rest’ in the GC battle, but it’s Ayuso’s strong all-around performance and Rodríguez who boosted local morale. for the medium and long term future of the races of the Grand Tour of Spain.
“They remind me of when I got the Vuelta podium in 2018, it’s great to see how well they’re doing, it’s very encouraging for Spanish cycling,” Mas said.
Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) certainly punch above their weight in a way that parallels Mas’ second-place finish in Madrid and four-year stage win. Currently fourth and fifth overall, the two are racing their first Grand Tour.
At 19, Ayuso is the youngest rider in the Vuelta since Eduardo Chozas 42 years ago. Rodríguez, who turned professional in 2020, is just over a year older than Ayuso.
“Juan is young and doesn’t have a lot of experience yet, but he has huge qualities as a driver,” said UAE Team Emirates Sporting Director Joxean Fernandez Matxin. Cycling news.
“We have already changed his program and brought forward his participation in the Vuelta by a year, and we did it because in his first World Tour race (Volta a Catalunya) he already finished fifth, although he’s there to help. [Joao] Almeida, and in his second [the Tour de Romandie], he was fourth. Then on the third [Criterium du Dauphine]he was eighth but had to retire because he fell ill.
“So here he is in the Vuelta. He recently won Getxo ahead of [Wilco] Kelderman (Bora-Hansgrohe) and he is a rider who can climb well, do very good time trials and is also very good in sprints.
Matxin says his Portuguese teammate and team manager João Almeida is acting like lightning to take the pressure off Ayuso’s shoulders.
“Joao is the leader here too, and every day we just have to appreciate what Juan gives us, but not demand anything more than that. He’s here to learn,” he said.
A few seconds apart
Rodríguez has been on a remarkably similar trajectory to Ayuso in the Vuelta so far, with just three seconds separating the two on GC. Rodríguez is fourth overall, 2:33 behind Evenepoel, with Ayuso fifth at 2:36.
Rodríguez’s progress has been more gradual compared to Ayuso, who turned professional in 2020 but still very impressive, his rise to the upper echelons of the hierarchy is remarkably fast.
His debut season which was cut short considerably by the COVID-19 pandemic but the Spanish champions jersey in June and a notable stage victory at Itzulia in April indicated his talents ahead of the Vuelta.
“Carlos never ceases to amaze us,” Ineos Grenadiers racing coach Xabier Artetxe told Spanish television on Sunday night, shortly after Rodríguez secured his third consecutive ninth-place finish in the first three finishes at the top of the Praeres race.
“But it’s the first Grand Tour he’s done so it would be foolhardy to say this or it will happen for sure.
“When we designed his career plan when he came to the team three years ago, the idea was what we did. He spent two years getting used to the WorldTour and then, the third year, competing in the Vuelta a España.
One of four Grand Tour starters for Ineos Grenadiers this year, Artetxe says it’s important to keep a sense of perspective.
“We know there are top runners who burn out in week three,” the team coach said. “But to be 21 and fourth overall, at the moment, we really can’t ask for more. Anything after that will be a bonus.
Anything can happen in the ‘truth race’ time trial in Alicante, but the chances of the two remaining so close after a 30 kilometer time trial are logically slim. However, when it comes to predicting how well they will fare, both Ayuso and Rodríguez have solid, if logically limited, benchmarks at the WorldTour level and before. Both are former Spanish junior time trial champions.
Rodríguez has already picked up a bronze medal in the same category at senior level in 2021. Ayuso, on the other hand, has better WorldTour time trial results so far, with an eighth in Romandie and a 10th in Dauphiné this year.
However, as their team leadership constantly points out, neither push for a particular overall GC goal at the start of their respective careers.
“Right now I’m not even starting to think about winning the Vuelta,” Ayuso said on Monday’s rest day. “There’s so much ahead of me and I’m doing it all day by day.”
“If I started imagining I was on the podium or winning and not doing it, I would end up finishing the race with a bad taste in my mouth and that’s not fair.
“I’m ambitious and if I can be up there then I’ll try. But I didn’t start this race with a clear objective, because it’s my first Grand Tour.
Rodríguez echoed Ayuso’s words saying he is very happy with his results so far and that rather than pushing for a place in the general classification no matter what, his main objective is to take advantage of the Vuelta and see what happens.
As for the one-year-old rider barely older than Rodríguez and already leading the Vuelta, he said: “So far, Remco has proven that he is on a different level.
“Hopefully in the next few weeks we can work on closing the gap and fighting for as high a position as possible. Anyway, I didn’t expect to be where I am overall. , so I’m very happy with what I’ve done so far.
A new Spanish rivalry
The history of cycling is littered with examples of bitter divisions between top riders from the same country succeeding in the same kinds of races at the same time. But Ayuso insists there is no sort of underlying antagonism or ill will between him and his compatriot.
“With Carlos, there is rivalry, respect and friendship. We have been competing together since we were ‘cadets’ [the 15-16-year-old category in Spain] every weekend. I’m always very happy for him when he achieves something big because he’s a naturally friendly guy,” Ayuso said.
Curiously, in addition to shining in their home Grand Tour, the two riders will find themselves on very familiar ground this week.
Ayuso has lived in the Valencia region since 2010 in nearby Javea, near where today’s time trial takes place, while Rodriguez grew up in the Andalusian coastal town of Almunecar and therefore knows the stage 15 ascent to the Sierra Nevada and the stage 12 routes along the edge of the Mediterranean very well.
“I hope it will give me some extra energy, I would appreciate that, it would be helpful,” Rodríguez said with a touch of good humor on Monday.
“Knowing the roads a bit can also be an advantage, knowing where you need to be up front and so on. »
As for young riders doing so well on their first Grand Tour, as Matxin points out, modern trends in cycling suggest it’s a phenomenon that’s here to stay.
“Each year, it’s less and less rare to have these young riders up there. Don’t forget what Tadej Pogacar was doing at 19 and the race leader here is a certain Remco. We have to stop being surprised,” he said. Cycling news.
Whatever happens between Alicante and the Vuelta fish in Madrid, Spanish cycling fans can start celebrating the re-emergence of their country’s young riders at the sport’s top level.
That this takes place in the same Vuelta where a rider who has flown the Spanish flag in the Grand Tours for so long like Alejandro Valverde is racing in his last three-week race is, of course, a complete coincidence. Yet the symbolism of it all could hardly be clearer.