A theoretically straightforward opening team time trial for the 2023 Vuelta a España on Saturday ended up being marred by miserable racing conditions that saw multiple mass crashes, and a first abandon less than 10 kilometres into the stage.
Ineos Grenadiers climber Laurens De Plus fell heavily early on his team’s ride on the 14.8 kilometre course, and after struggling to get back on his bike, was evacuated from the race in an ambulance for further assessment of his injuries. Official race reports later said he had injured his pelvis.
While the Belgian will likely be sorely missed by leader Geraint Thomas in the Vuelta’s multiple mountain stages, other teams suffered mass pile ups on a course rendered treacherous by heavy rainfall, standing water and bizarrely poor night-time visibility in one of Europe’s biggest cities.
Alpecin-Deceuninck were one of the teams to go down hard, with Jayco-AIUIa also seeing six of their eight riders hit the deck.
Early finishers sought shelter from the incessant rain under a conveniently located flyover bridge just past the line to check on teammates who had crashed alongside them and share experiences with the waiting media.
“I feel really bad for Jason [Osborne, teammate] I took him out at that first roundabout,” Alpecin-Deceuninck sprinter Kaden Groves told reporters. “Slippery roads, I didn’t think I was taking any risks, but unfortunately I was too fast.”
“It was an off-camber corner and I lost my front wheel. It was my own fault. Thankfully everybody was okay.”
He agreed that some GC riders coming later “would have to take it easy, they’ll take different strategies after seeing us go down,” but said the course in itself was not overly technical.
“In the wet – yes, but in the dry in the recons it was super-safe,” he concluded – although his team was one of the ones that raced in daylight, with later squads criticising a lack of visibility.
“We had to rely on the radios to tell us there was 200 metres to go to the corner, it was really hard to estimate the distance,” Soudal-QuickStep Louis Vervaeke, whose teammate Remco Evenepoel was one of the most outspoken critics of the course, told Danish TV. “It was a nice area of Barcelona but a little bit disappointing.”
UAE Team Emirates contender Juan Ayuso confirmed that his team, one of the slowest of the GC squads on the day, had opted to take things more slowly.
“We set out with the plan to not to risk to much, considering the weather conditions,” he confirmed. “We lost a bit of time in the last kilometres but it was a decent time and nobody crashed so we look to the positive side. We have 20 more hard days ahead of us to fight.”
Geraint Thomas’ Ineos Grenadiers team delivered a respectable eighth place on the stage, but as Thomas reported, the loss of De Plus and TT powerhouse Filippo Ganna suffering an untimely puncture shook the team.
“To be honest, I was on the front, I went into the corner too hot I think, and he hit the deck and that set us off on a bad foot.”
“Pippo punctured and then a few guys got a bit more nervous after the crash so it was one of those courses where you felt you never got going.”
When De Plus went down, “There was a lot of swearing in my head thinking yeah that’s not good and then we lost Pippo which wasn’t ideal. But we all did what we could and in the circumstances, we managed to hold it together.”
Rather than Saturday’s TTT and Sunday’s hilly finale being significant GC stages, the whole opening weekend, Thomas said “was more about not losing it – which we almost did today – because these stages are going to be about seconds not minutes.”
“But like I said, it was not the best way to start.”
And that was an opinion that was echoed by a significant number of Vuelta riders on Saturday evening in Barcelona.
We’ve seen loads of Game of Thrones episodes that weren’t as dark as the opening stage of #LaVuelta23.Photo: @GettySport pic.twitter.com/cOC4yNGCvvAugust 26, 2023