The truncated 2020 Vuelta a España could be the lucky seventh Grand Tour of Hugh Carthy's career. The British rider is one of only seven riders to make the leading group on both of the mountain stages so far - first on the summit finale to Alto de Arrate on stage 1 and again over the 1,200m-high Alto de San Miguel de Aralar on Wednesday.
With his EF Pro Cycling teammate Daní Martinez - who was slated to be the GC leader - having crashed on Tuesday and lost four and a half minutes, Carthy is now his team's main hopeful for the final standings in Madrid, should the race get there in early November, sitting in sixth place only 20 seconds behind race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma).
While some contenders like Jumbo-Visma's Tom Dumoulin and Ineos Grenadiers' Chris Froome struggled in the intense start to the last Grand Tour of the coronavirus-hit season, Carthy has found himself in the sweet spot.
"I'm feeling good, day by day I'm feeling OK," Carthy said after the stage to Lekunberri. "It's only stage 2 so I'm staying calm. I've felt good the last couple of weeks in training. After Worlds I was a bit tired but I knew that with a couple weeks rest and some time at home I'd be going well again. I wasn't too concerned about that. Coming into the past week everything was in place, I felt good, I was healthy and motivated and I knew I was ready to do something like this."
Carthy has made steady progress since racing his first Grand Tour in the 2016 Vuelta when racing for Caja Rural, and since joining the Slipstream Sports organisation in 2017 he's gone from being a climbing domestique to a main contender when the road tilts uphill. In 2019 he won a stage in the Tour de Suisse and the mountains classification, and finished 11th overall in the Giro d'Italia. After supporting Rigoberto Uran in the Tour de France one month ago, he now has freedom to ride for the best possible result in the Vuelta.
"When I'm in good form I can do more than what people expect," Carthy said. "Yesterdays' climb was quite nice, it was just long enough to fit into my terrain and today's climb as well - today was probably worse than yesterday. It was steeper and had a bad surface, bumpier and pitchier - a steep section then flat section then steep section. They were both good climbs that I knew pretty well."
With Martinez out of the hunt for the overall, Carthy said the EF Pro Cycling team would likely go on the hunt for stage wins rather than dedicate the whole team to protecting him for the overall standings.
"They're probably going to be trying for the breakaways, and whoever doesn't get in the breakaways will hang back and support me. So it will be worked out naturally rather than having one or two dedicated riders for me. There's not going to be any stress, I'm not going to over-complicate things and go crazy. We'll split the team into a couple different groups. We have good riders to do everything."
With the flat stages in the Netherlands cancelled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, the Vuelta a España has been condensed into 18 stages, opening with three hard stages in the mountains before finally getting some relief on stage 4. After that, the next and last stage without any major climbs is stage 9. Despite it being such a difficult race so late in the season, Carthy says the peloton remains motivated.
"It's the Vuelta - you think it's October, everyone's going to be tired and ready to climb off, but it's the Vuelta - one of the biggest races in the world. A lot of guys haven't ridden a Grand Tour all year, they're still looking for a team or trying to get a contract etc. There's never a Grand Tour where you have half the peloton wanting to climb off. It feels like a normal Grand Tour albeit with slightly different weather.
"Similar to the Tour, the GC's been limited, certainly, in the last couple of days. It will be interesting to see how it turns out in the coming weeks. That means there are good opportunities for breakaways and plenty of stage wins on the cards. There are some good teams to control, with a few strong riders in each team. It's going to be an interesting couple of weeks."
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