João Almeida's Volta a Catalunya GC lead was one of fine margins at the outset of stage 6, with the UAE Team Emirates leader's one-second lead over Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) vulnerable to attack on the hilly stage in the Prades mountains.
Few will have foreseen, however, the stunning long-range move which transferred the white-and-green jersey from his back onto that of Bora-Hansgrohe's Sergio Higuita. The Colombian turned a seven-second deficit into a 52-second advantage heading into Sunday's final stage, having launched a monumental 130km attack with Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
The duo were out front for over three-quarters of the four-hour stage, having leapt away on a first categorised climb of the day. Almeida would cross the line in the peloton 48 seconds behind them, his hopes of a third career stage race victory surely in tatters.
After the race, the 23-year-old admitted his mistake on the Coll de les Llebres, having positioned himself too far back in the peloton when the pair jumped at the front along, having been set up by Carapaz's teammate Luke Plapp.
"It was not perfect," Almeida explained following the finish. "To be honest it was my mistake. I started the first climb way too far back. But that's bike racing, you make mistakes sometimes.
"It was a hard day out there. I think the whole peloton was weary today in these conditions. In the end it wasn't too bad, and tomorrow is another day. Let's recover from today and see how I am tomorrow."
The final stage of the Volta, a hilly circuit race around Parc Montjuïc, is often given to hard and changeable racing, but the race lead rarely changes hands. Carapaz could be tempted into another assault for the win, lying just 16 seconds back on Higuita, but for Almeida, a race-winning move looks a step too far.
He said that he and his team were expecting stage 5 to be a tricky day out – one only made tougher by the rain – but noted that the long-range move was an unexpected one.
"For sure, we were expecting it to be a hard stage. It wouldn't be easy. For sure it will be hard. It was a tricky stage also with these weather conditions. For sure the attack from both of them, we weren't expecting it for sure.
"But as I said, in the end it was my mistake starting too far back. But still thanks to the teammates which worked so hard for us all day. The job they did was really good."
UAE Team Emirates had controlled the peloton, or what was left of it, for much of the stage, with Juan Ayuso, George Bennett, Rui Costa, and Marc Soler all contributing to the work. Before the final 50km, however, few others came to their aid, with Uno-X and Bahrain Victorious among those helping out to bring the gap to two minutes at the final climb.
"It's normal," Almeida said when asked about the other teams' refusal to do the work. "We have the leader's jersey, and we also have a good team. So, if I was in the other teams' place, I'd do the same thing. It's bike racing."
Almeida's teammate Ayuso went on the move himself on the descent off the final climb of the Coll de la Teixeta with 29km to go. It was an odd move with still 1:30 to make up on the breakaway duo, and the 19-year-old, who now sits fifth on GC, was brought back before the line. His leader explained what exactly had occurred on the way down the descent.
"I had maybe a little bit too much [tyre] pressure so I was slipping a bit on the corners. Also sorry to the riders behind me," he said, jokingly. "I said to Ayuso to go solo because he was doing a good descent.
"In the end he was in the front group with some riders, and I was in another group, and they had to work also. In the end it wasn't too bad. I would say we kind of saved the day in terms of what happened.
"We always have to look in a positive way at things. I think we can be proud of the race we did anyway."
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