Remco Evenepoel rubber-stamped his Vuelta a Espana title on Sunday, safely negotiating the procession into Madrid.

The 22-year-old joins an illustrious list of names from his native Belgium to have won a Grand Tour, albeit his triumph in Spain marks the end of a long drought for the nation.

Evenepoel's success, however, came at the expense of Primoz Roglic's shot at history.

Roglic was hunting an unprecedented fourth straight Vuelta title, and looked set to overtake Evenepoel in the general classification in stage 16, only to suffer a crash 100 metres from the line.

The Slovenian was unable to carry on due to the injuries he sustained and abandoned La Vuelta for the first time in his career. Roglic has had awful luck in recent Grand Tours, having had to abandon three of the last four he has appeared in.

There were 49 withdrawals across this edition of La Vuelta, the highest number since 2013.

But of the riders that did finish, there were plenty of records and statistics to dive into, courtesy of Opta data.

Belgium's long wait is over

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen shrugged off the jeers and boos he received after triumphing at The son of former pro cyclist Patrick Evenepoel, a young Remco actually started his sporting career in football, with one of his old clubs – Dutch giants PSV – among those to offer their congratulations as he became Vuelta champion.

It marks Evenepoel's first Grand Tour crown, in what was his first appearance at La Vuelta. He led the race for a remarkable 16 stages, which is more than any other rider has led it for since two-time champion Chris Froome managed 19 stages in red back in 2017.

Belgium has produced some fantastic riders, not least the great Eddy Merckx, who counts one Vuelta crown among his 11 Grand Tour titles, yet shockingly Evenepoel is the nation's first GT champion since 1978, when Johan de Muynck won the Giro d'Italia.

Evenepoel is the eighth Belgian to win the Vuelta – the first since Freddy Maertens in 1977. Only Spain (32) and France (nine) have produced more Vuelta champions than Belgium (eight).

Out with the old...

Alejandro Valverde won La Vuelta in 2009, but on his farewell appearance at his home Grand Tour, the 42-year-old was never going to compete for top honours.

Instead, this was his goodbye lap, as Valverde completed his 14th Vuelta, matching the record tallies of Federico Etxabe, Chente Garcia Acosta and Inigo Cuesta.

Spain did have a GC contender to cheer on in the form of Movistar's Enric Mas, but after Roglic's crash, he was unable to close the gap on Evenepoel, finishing over two minutes back. No Spaniard has now won it since 2014, which is the longest streak in the race's history without a home champion.

 

Mas has finished second in three of his four Vuelta appearances, and came in ahead of Juan Ayuso, with two Spanish riders finishing in the top three for the first time since 2014, when Valverde joined champion Alberto Contador on the podium.

Ayuso, who contracted COVID-19 early in the race but carried on, is the youngest rider to achieve a podium finish at La Vuelta (19 years and 360 days). Spain's future seems in good hands.

Carapaz caps personal best, Pedersen a rising star

The red jersey was, of course, not the only one up for grabs. Richard Carapaz and Mads Pedersen both finished with three stage victories to their name.

Carapaz became the first cyclist from the Americas to win the mountain classification since Felix Cardenas of Colombia in 2004, while the INEOS Grenadier rider also marked his best effort at a Grand Tour, surpassing the two stage wins he managed at the 2019 Giro d'Italia.

Vuelta debutant Pedersen, meanwhile, became the first Dane to win the points jersey in any Grand Tour.

It has been a brilliant year for Denmark, with Jonas Vingegaard having claimed the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, and Pedersen is among their best riders. Indeed, the only Dane to have won more stages at La Vuelta than the sprinter is Magnus Cort (six), though the latter has made three appearances in the race.

Primoz Roglic will set out on a mission to create cycling history as the Slovenian gets his Vuelta a Espana campaign under way on Friday.

The 77th edition of the Grand Tour starts in Utrecht, with the opening three stages taking place across the Netherlands before the caravan transfers to Spain.

It is only the fourth time that the Vuelta has started outside of Spain, after doing so in Portugal in 1997, the Netherlands in 2009 and France in 2017.

Spanish riders have won 32 of the previous 76 editions, but not since 2014 has a Spaniard triumphed, when Alberto Contador tasted glory.

It is the longest wait for a Spaniard champion in the race's history, and in the last three years, it is Roglic who has dominated.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Valverde, the 2009 champion, will bid goodbye to his home Grand Tour.

 

Roglic's shot at history

Roglic won his first Vuelta title in 2019 and successfully defended in 2020, despite his heartbreaking defeat to Tadej Pogacar at that year's Tour de France.

He crashed out of Le Tour in 2021 but bounced back in style, winning Olympic gold in Tokyo before clinching a third-straight Vuelta triumph to match the feats of Tony Rominger (1992 to 1994) and Roberto Heras (2003 to 2005).

Now, Roglic has history in his sights. Only Heras has won the Vuelta on four occasions, but no rider has ever won it over four successive years.

The 32-year-old Roglic's Tour de France again ended early this year, as he watched team-mate Jonas Vingegaard storm to success and set up a rivalry with Roglic's compatriot Pogacar that should enthral for years to come; but at the Vuelta, Roglic is Jumbo-Visma's main man.

Roglic has won the Vuelta in all of his three appearances, reaching nine stage wins in this period, more than any other rider (Fabio Jakobsen is the next best, with five to his name). He also claimed the points ranking in both 2019 and 2020, and could equal Erik Zabel (three) as joint-second on the all-time list for that classification, behind Sean Kelly, Valverde and Laurent Jalabert (four each).

"Of course the record gives me more motivation, it's special," said Roglic in a press conference on Thursday. "We're going to fight for that."

There are some concerns over his fitness after the injury he suffered at Le Tour, however.

Roglic said: "At certain moments I still feel some pain, but it is already much better than before. We'll see. If I get to the start here, it means I'm ready too. But I'll have to wait and see in the coming days and weeks to find out how it really goes."

Roglic could also feasibly set a record for the most stages wearing the red leader's jersey. He is currently level with Herras on 36, 12 behind Alex Zulle's haul of 48.

A last dance for Vuelta veterans?

Valverde, of Movistar, will be making his 16th Vuelta appearance. The 42-year-old has achieved more podium finishes in the general classification than any other rider, having done so on seven occasions, including his 2009 success.

If he completes the race, Valverde, who has won 12 individual stages at La Vuelta, will equal Federico Etxabe, Chente Garcia Acosta and Inigo Cuesta as riders who have finished the most times (14).

"To win a stage would be incredible," Valverde said on Thursday. "I don't believe I will be at the same level as the best during 21 days, but we do have a team-mate who can be among the top three or perhaps even win. What I see for myself is that I will try to win a stage."

Chris Froome, meanwhile, is a two-time Vuelta champion who is out to prove himself once more.

The seven-time Grand Tour winner has been struggling with COVID-19 in the build-up this time but is set to make his eighth appearance in the race, having finished on the podium four times, taking the 2011 and 2017 titles.

The first of those victories was only awarded to Froome in 2019 after original race winner Juan Jose Cobo was disqualified for a doping offence.

In a stellar career, Froome has become the first British rider to win all three of the biggest races in cycling.

 

The first Grand Tour of 2022 starts on Friday, with the Giro d'Italia getting underway in Hungary.

Any chances of Egan Bernal being in line to defend his title were dashed in January, when the Colombian suffered serious injuries in a training ride in his homeland.

Fortunately, Bernal has recovered and is training again in Europe with his INEOS Grenadiers team-mates, but he will not be vying for a second successive maglia rosa.

Likewise, Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar is skipping the Giro to focus his efforts on a third straight yellow jersey. His fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic, too, will not be present for the 3,445.6km race that begins in Budapest and takes in a trip around Sicily before snaking its way around the Italian mainland, finishing with a time trial in Verona.

But the lack of standout favourites could well result in a more open race. Though not a general classification contender, Mark Cavendish is making his long-awaited Giro return, while Vincenzo Nibali will visit his hometown on what seems set to be his final appearance at this particular Grand Tour.

 

Stats Perform looks at the key storylines heading into the Giro d'Italia.

Picks of the bunch

This year's route features only 26.3km of time trialling – the lowest amount in a Giro since 1963, when there were no time trials. Instead, there is close to 51km of climbing, with much of that reserved for the gruelling final stages.

It is no surprise, then, that reigning world time trial champion Filippo Ganna, who has won six stages across the last two Giro and claimed gold in the team pursuit for Italy at the Tokyo Olympics, is not involved for INEOS this time around.

 

Leading the Grenadiers will be Richard Carapraz, the 2019 victor who will have support from Pavel Sivakov, a particularly strong climber.

For Alpecin-Felix, Mathieu van der Poel will hope to build on his impressive GT debut from last year's Tour de France and collect some points in the early stages, while Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) will want another shot at Giro glory.

Yates had top drop out in 2020 after testing positive for coronavirus but won two stages to finish third in 2021. Indeed, that makes him the best performer from last year's GC to feature this time around, with Damiano Caruso, who took second, also sitting out.

Tom Dumoulin won in 2017 and is back after a hiatus, while 42-year-old Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde is set for his final Giro appearance, with the Spaniard set to retire at the end of the season.

Mikel Landa took the maglia azzurra in 2017 and he leads a Bahrain-Victorious team that includes Wout Poels, who held the king of the mountains jersey for four stages of Le Tour last year.

Cav is back

After his sensational efforts in last year's Tour de France, when he matched Eddy Merckx's record of 34 stage wins, Cavendish will return to the Giro after a nine-year absence after he was confirmed to be heading up the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team.

Cavendish last featured in the race in 2013, topping the points classification after winning five stages.

His participation here does cast doubt over whether he will compete in Le Tour and get the chance to set the stage-win record in that race, especially as he turns 37 later this month (he'll celebrate his birthday with a 153km mountain stage from Santena to Torino on May 21).

However, regardless of whether he gets another shot at Tour de France history in July, Cavendish will be out to add to his 15 Giro stage wins. 

 

Nibali's long goodbye

The Giro passes through Messina on May 11, marking a return to his hometown for Nibali, the two-time champion who looks set to be making his final appearance in the race.

Nibali has won four Grand Tours and while the 37-year-old is unlikely to make any GC inroads (his last success was in 2016), it will be a glorious opportunity for him to bid farewell.

He was in tears after winning last year's Giro di Sicilia – how fitting would it be if he were to win an eighth Giro stage of his career back in the town where he grew up.

Nibali was the last Italian rider to win the Giro, and Italy's hopes rest on Trek-Segafredo's Giulio Ciccone, who crashed out in 2021.

Alejandro Valverde has confirmed he will retire at the end of the 2022 season and hopes to contest at least one more grand tour on home soil in the Vuelta a Espana.

Next year will be the veteran rider's 21st campaign in professional cycling and he sees no need to continue further despite still feeling able to compete.

Valverde, who ruled out competing at next year's Tour de France, will remain in a coaching role with the Movistar team after his retirement, given his contract will still have two years to run.

The 41-year-old won the Vuelta in 2009 and has achieved a further six podium finishes at the prestigious event.

Valverde has also finished third in the Tour de France and come third in the Giro d'Italia in the only time he competed in the Italian stage race in 2016, as well as being crowned world road champion in 2018.

The Spaniard returned from a two-year suspension due to the Operacion Puerto investigation in 2012, having had all of his 2010 results annulled after a lengthy legal battle.

"I say with total conviction, 100 per cent, that 2022 is going to be my last year," Valverde told Sports Radiogaceta.

"Even though my level is good at 42, it makes no sense to extend longer after 21 years in the business. What more do I want? My time has come.

"I want to enjoy my last season as a pro. I don't have my season sketched out yet, but a start at the Tour de France is already excluded.

"I hope to race the Vuelta next year, and we will study the Giro route too, and then there is the Classics and all the races on the Spanish calendar.

"When I retire I have a contract for two more years in the Movistar team. I will try to help the team as much as I can, especially by coaching young riders, which is something I like a lot."

Spanish cycling great Alejandro Valverde underwent surgery on a broken collarbone on Saturday after pulling out of the Vuelta a Espana.

The 41-year-old, who won the 2009 edition of the Vuelta, suffered a heavy crash in Friday's seventh stage and subsequently abandoned the race.

His Movistar team said Valverde came through his operation successfully.

They said in a statement posted on Twitter: "@alejanvalverde has undergone surgery this Saturday morning for his right clavicle fracture after his fall in #LaVuelta21.

"The intervention, carried out by @DrEsparzaRos and Dr Javier Hernandez at the Hospital @GrupoHLA La Vega (Murcia), passed without complications."

No timescale for his recovery has been detailed.

Valverde, who began Friday's stage sitting fourth overall, attacked on the Puerto El Colloa, attempting to put his GC rivals onto the back foot, only to spin out of control on a difficult right-hand turn.

He crashed through a gap in the barriers and onto the lip of the hillside, avoiding tumbling further. Although he attempted to carry on after receiving treatment, Valverde was soon compelled to retire from the race.

Valverde posted on Friday evening that "it hurts to leave like this" as he came to terms with his fate, the race carrying on in his absence.

Primoz Roglic held on to La Roja but saw his Vuelta a Espana lead cut to eight seconds as Michael Storer claimed victory on stage seven.

The first mountain stage of this year's Vuelta promised to shake things up in the general classification pack but two-time defending champion Roglic retained his place in pole position.

However, his lead was trimmed down by 17 seconds in total, with Felix Grossschartner - who finished one minute and 32 seconds behind Storer - closing the gap.

Enric Mas, who was in second, stayed 25 seconds back from Roglic.

The day belonged to Storer, however, with the Team DSM rider powering to victory on the breakaway, finishing 21 seconds clear of Carlos Verona up the Balcon de Alicante, the last of six categorised climbs on Friday.

Storer's aggression paid off with 4km remaining when he countered an attack from Movistar's Verona, who crossed the line 38 seconds ahead of third-placed Pavel Sivakov, who also clinched the lead in the climbers' classification.

Verona's effort capped a difficult day for Movistar, who lost Alejandro Valverde with around 40km of the route remaining.

The Spaniard, who started the day fourth overall, attacked on the Puerto El Colloa, attempting to put his GC rivals onto the back foot, only to spin out of control on a difficult right-hand turn.

Valverde, the 2009 Vuelta champion, crashed through a gap in the barriers and onto the lip of the hillside, though fortunately managed to avoid tumbling over it.

He attempted to carry on after receiving treatment, but could not last and is out of the tour.

STAGE RESULT

1. Michael Storer (Team DSM) 4:10:13
2. Carlos Verona (Movistar) +0:22
3. Pavel Sivakov (INEOS Grenadiers) +0:59
4. Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) +1:16
5. Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) +1:24

CLASSIFICATION STANDINGS

General Classification

1. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) 25:18:35
2. Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe) +0:08
3. Enric Mas (Movistar) +0:25

Points Classification

1. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) 131
2. Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) 130
3. Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) 67

King of the Mountains

1. Pavel Sivakov (INEOS-Grenadiers) 16
2. Michael Storer (Team DSM) 12
3. Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) 11

What's next?

It is back to the flats for stage eight, with a sprint finish into La Manga del Mar Menor rounding off the first week of action.

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