Jack Haig’s early abandon at the Tour de France meant that he arrived at this Vuelta a España short of racing and largely bereft of personal ambition. He may have enjoyed a fine debut season at Bahrain Victorious, but at this race, he set out with the task of reprising his old GreenEdge role as a most deluxe domestique, this time in the service of Mikel Landa.
Although Landa has struggled at the Vuelta’s most recent summit finishes, and even though Haig has climbed in the top 10 overall following an enterprising afternoon in the breakaway on stage 7 to Balcón de Alicante, the roles remain unchanged at Bahrain Victorious, at least for the time being.
Ahead of Sunday’s arduous leg to the Alto de Velefique, which features some 4,500 metres of total climbing, Haig lies seventh on the general classification, 57 seconds behind Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), while Landa occupies 12th place, 1:42 off the maillot rojo.
“I managed to get a decent stage result [fifth] and also move myself up in GC on Friday, but it doesn’t really change much for the team plans,” Haig told reporters at the start of stage 8 in Santa Pola. “I’m still a bit unsure of how I’m going to last throughout the Vuelta coming off not too much training coming into this race.
“We still have a lot of faith in Mikel. Every day always he’s there or thereabouts, and I guess we’ll have a bit more of an understanding of where everybody sits in the team after Sunday.”
Like Haig, Landa endured the disappointment of being forced into an early abandon from a Grand Tour this season. The Basque had caught the eye on the Giro d’Italia’s first mountains on the road to Sestola only to crash heavily on the road to Cattolica the following afternoon, suffering a broken collarbone and multiple fractured ribs. Landa returned to action at the Clásica San Sebastian on July 31 and perhaps surprised even himself by snatching overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month.
Although Landa finished alongside Roglič and Bernal on the Vuelta a España’s first summit finish at Picón Blanco on stage 3, he has suffered setbacks on the two uphill finales since, shipping 27 seconds at Cullera on stage 6 and another half a minute to his rivals at Balcón de Alicante the following day.
Despite Landa’s downward trajectory, however, Haig insisted he had no ambitions of stepping into a leadership role given his own path to this Vuelta. The Australian lost almost a minute and a half to the red jersey group at Picón Blanco, and he also finished behind Landa at Cullera.
“I’m also not really after that at the moment either,” Haig said. “I think after Sunday we’ll see and reassess the situation, but at the moment I’m just trying to take every opportunity I can. Everything that I get is a bonus, basically.”
Haig was in the hunt for stage victory at Balcón de Alicante, though the unwieldy nature of the break, which featured some 29 riders, meant that the honours were not decided on strength alone. Eventual winner Michael Storer (Team DSM) escaped ahead of the final climb, where Haig rode strongly in the company of Sepp Kuss, Romain Bardet and Felix Großschartner, eventually placing fifth on the stage.
“You have to gamble a bit, because you can’t spend all your energy following every single move,” said Haig. “In our group, Felix Großschartner was potentially riding into red and guys like Sepp, Romain and myself expected him to ride a little bit more for time rather than for the stage.”
Haig’s elevated position on general classification means that he surely won’t be granted the same leeway to go on the offensive on the road to the Alto de Velefique on Sunday. Although he expressed hope he might now serve as a tactical foil for Landa against Roglič, he acknowledged that the current maillot rojo was a most daunting obstacle.
“To be honest, I think he’s going to be incredibly hard to beat. I think the only person who can beat him is himself,” Haig said. “I think he needs to make a mistake for anybody else to capitalise. He’s looking incredibly strong and it’s hard to see him not winning the Vuelta, I think.”