What is it about Cordoba, the Vuelta a España and Norwegians? 15 years ago, the Vuelta finish in the Andalucian city was already witness to sprinter Thor Hushovd becoming Norway’s first leader of the Spanish Grand Tour, and in 2021, as the Vuelta reached Cordoba, another Norwegian was heading the race: Odd Christian Eiking.
“[Thor Hushovd] was at his best when I grew up and I watched him in the Tour de France and also in La Vuelta when he was there,” the Vuelta’s current leader told the race organisation on Thursday.
“I’m not a big name, like he was,” the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux rider recognised to reporters, “but it’s nice to hear that he also had the jersey here. It’s cool.”
Transient though the latest Norwegian’s hold on the Vuelta lead may prove to be, the 26-year-old Norwegian nonetheless put in a tenacious job of defending his lead both on Wednesday on the steep slopes of Valdepeñas de Jaén and again on Thursday through the sun-scorched sierras overlooking Cordoba.
“I never had too many problems, if they had really accelerated on the climb it would have been more difficult,” Eiking said.
“But there wasn’t a really big GC fight. It’s true, Giulio Ciccone went for it, but it was a good day for sprinters like [Magnus] Cort Nielsen.
“It was hotter than I thought it would be, and it took forever for the break to go.
“But we’ve had two weeks to get used to these temperatures, and I hope in any case it cools down when we go further north.”
Having taken the jersey on Spain’s southern coastline at Rincon de la Victoria on Tuesday, the question of whether Eiking will be in the lead by the time the Vuelta next catches sight of the sea, in the northern Spanish province of Cantabria next Monday, though, is a moot one.
Eiking is, logically, convinced that he should hold it on Friday’s flat run north.
But as for Saturday’s next big summit finish, having never led a Grand Tour before or even been so highly placed, he and his team will be entering uncharted waters.
“We just don’t know what can happen,” Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux director Valerio Piva told Cyclingnews on Thursday. “He might yet be in the lead by the time we get to the mountains in the third week. So far he’s been defending it really well and the team have been stepping up as well.”
“We’re taking it day by day, and we should hold it tomorrow. But the stages have been nervous and we’ve seen already with Rein [Taaramae] that you can lose the jersey through bad luck, too.”
Eiking currently has a lead of 58 seconds on France’s Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) and 1:56 on arch-favourite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). That’s hardly a massive lead, but then again it’s not as if he was holding onto the red jersey by a handful of seconds, either.
As Piva says, though, although he is sure that Eiking will do his utmost to defend the jersey, “We’ve had the lead twice, we’re still in the lead now, and we’ve had a stage win as well. It’s been a dream race for us already. Whatever happens now, we’ll have no regrets.”
Apart from Cordoba and their nationality, one other Vuelta fact brings Eiking and Hushovd together. In 2006, Hushovd held the race lead for three days, a total Eiking has now equalled, 15 years on, and could overtake if he is still in red on Friday in Villanueva de la Serena.