The final mountain stage of the Vuelta a España brought more joy for Richard Carapaz as the Ineos Grenadiers climber soloed to a third stage win of the race as well as securing the mountain classification victory.
Carapaz, racing his final Grand Tour for Ineos Grenadiers, triumphed from the breakaway after leaving Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) behind at the peak of the Vuelta's final climb, 7km from the finish.
As the GC group raced in behind the Ecuadorian, race leader Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) all but secured his first career Grand Tour victory, having safely traversed the final challenge of the race.
The Belgian held a lead of 2:07 over second-placed Enric Mas (Movistar) heading into the multi-mountain day to the Puerto de Navacerrada. However, he had little trouble in defending his overall lead, with his Spanish rival limiting his efforts to a handful of accelerations on the penultimate climb of the day.
The pair came home as part of a select GC group, with the 22-year-old at 15 seconds down on Carapaz and Mas snatching two seconds as the riders rolled across the finish line. Should Evenepoel make it through the final, largely ceremonial, sprint stage in Madrid, he'll be crowned as the first Belgian Grand Tour winner since Johan De Muynck in 1978.
“I didn’t sleep too much last night, and this morning, before the start, I was quite stressed, but during the race I felt better and was relaxed, having confidence in myself and the Wolfpack. I knew that all I had to do was control and follow my opponents, and everything ran smoothly, just as we wanted," Evenepoel said.
“This is the biggest victory, the biggest moment of my career, and it feels incredible. It’s for my parents, my fiancée, my teammates. It’s the result of many weeks and months of hard work and sacrifices and always believing in yourself. I love racing in Spain, I have had success here since my first pro season and to win La Vuelta is a dream. It wasn’t easy, I had some stiff opposition, but I did it and I can’t tell you how much this means for me."
Thymen Arensman (Team DSM) took second place on the stage, eight seconds behind Carapaz, while Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) led the GC men home. Arensman had pushed on in the closing kilometres as he and Ayuso's teammate João Almeida had sought to jump above Ineos Grenadiers' battered Carlos Rodríguez in the general classification.
Rodríguez, who had been battling on with injuries sustained in a crash on stage 18, finished at 1:23 down, dropping down to seventh overall, a single second below Arensman. Aside from the unlucky Spaniard, there would be no other position changes at the top of the general classification.
How it unfolded
The penultimate stage of the 2022 Vuelta a España would prove to be the final showdown in the general classification battle as the contenders took on the final mountain stage of the race, a 181km ride from Moralzarzal to the Puerto de Navacerrada.
Five classified climbs would stand between race leader Evenepoel and overall victory. The first-category Navacerrada from the south (10.3km at 6.8%) was first up before a spell in the valley floor and second-category climbs of the Puerto de Navafria (9.8km at 5.5%) and the Puerto de Cancendia (7.5km at 4.9%).
The first-category Puerto de La Morcuera (9.4km at 6.9%) peaked 37km from the line, while the final mountain of the Vuelta would be the Puerto de Cotos (10.3km at 6.9%) on the north-side of the Navacerrada, a 6.7km flat run from the line.
Given the stage was the last real chance for the breakaway to get anything out of the Vuelta, it was no surprise that the battle to get out front was fierce and long-lasting.
Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), Luís Angel Maté (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers) were among the early attackers on the road to the first climb, with Turner's teammate, double stage winner Richard Carapaz, also attempting to break away once again.
A small group did manage to get away before the Navacerrada, with Clément Champoussin (AG2R Citroën), Xandro Meurisse, Robert Stannard (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Dani Navarro (Burgos-BH), Joan Bou (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Simon Guglielmi (Arkéa-Samsic), and Rubén Fernández (Cofidis) getting two minutes on the peloton.
Behind them, though, the attacks only continued as a stronger group of climbers managed to get away from the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl-controlled peloton. Stannard led the way over the top of the climb, while further back the trio of Gino Mäder (Bahrain Victorious), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), and Gregor Mühlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) gave chase ahead of a larger group of riders.
Carapaz was in there, the Ecuadorian joined by Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), Rohan Dennis, Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Sébastien Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ), Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), David de la Cruz, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan), and Jesús Herrada (Cofidis), among others.
Racing across the 40km flat run between the day's first two climbs, the chase group hadn't made any inroads, lying 1:30 down at the start of the Navafria with Pinot's group up ahead as the peloton lay a full five minutes down.
Stannard took another five KOM points at the top to take his total to 36, 14 down on Carapaz's 50 with 25 to play for. The Ineos rider would make his move on the next climb of the day, the Cancencia
By that point, the lead group consisted of Stannard, Soler, Pinot, Mäder, and Mühlberger, but the quintet soon added more riders as Carapaz, Valverde, and Higuita led a selection of the chase group across.
Heading across the 50km to go mark on the descent of the Cancencia, the peloton lay 3:45 down on the break, with UAE Team Emirates, Astana Qazaqstan, and Movistar taking charge of the reducing group.
That short descent quickly gave way to the next climb of the day, the penultimate challenge at La Morcuera. By then, Movistar were fully in charge as they sought to take the fight to Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), the Spanish team having shaved 40 seconds off the break's lead.
Up front the attacks were starting, with Meintjes (lying 11th overall at 13:53) making a move with Higuita quickly following. Carapaz came across a couple of kilometres later at 40 to go, while back in the peloton Enric Mas (Movistar) put in his first move as the crash-hit Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) struggled off the back.
João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Miguel Angel López (Astana Qazaqstan) also dropped away before recovering, making it an eight-man GC group with Evenepoel, Mas, Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën), and Thymen Arensman (Team DSM) along with caught breakaway man Soler.
At the top of the climb, Carapaz duly went to the front to scoop up 10 points and confirm his polka dot jersey victory. Back in the GC group, the muddled tactics of UAE brought discussions between Almeida and Ayuso, eventually resulting in an acceleration by the latter which spat O'Connor out the back.
The group swelled once more on the descent, with O'Connor and Rodríguez making their way back along with several dropped from the breakaway as UAE, Astana, and Movistar enjoyed having several domestiques to work.
The final climb
Meanwhile, at 45 seconds down on the leaders and a minute up on the GC men, the group of Carthy, Nibali, Valverde, Reichenbach, Gesink, Herrada, and Mäder battled on. They were only dropping time, though, while Carapaz took the start of the Cotos at 16km to go as his signal to go solo off the front.
Higuita soon joined him and was greeted by Carapaz handwaving him to contribute to the work, while 1:20 down the mountain the GC group absorbed the chase group as Gesink and Mäder held out 20 seconds up the road.
UAE, Astana, and Movistar continued to lead the GC group up the climb with three riders apiece, while Evenepoel was isolated. His red jersey seemed to be in little danger on the slopes of the climb, which were far from the most testing of the Vuelta.
Little had changed in the race situation at the 11km to go mark, at which point López made his move to shatter the pace. Rodríguez was immediately off the back as López led the rapidly reducing group past Gesink and Mäder and to within a minute of Carapaz and Higuita.
Almeida led the group into the final 10km, the Portuguese rider keen to make up the 25 seconds he needed on fifth-placed Rodríguez. A kilometre later, and two from the top of the climb, the GC group had swept up Meintjes and lay just seconds away from the lead pairing.
Another attack from López broke the rhythm at 8km to go, putting O'Connor and Hindley in trouble and taking the group to within sight of the leaders. A regrouping followed, with Almeida back on the front for the final kilometre of the climb, while 10 seconds up the road Carapaz dropped Higuita to snatch the Vuelta's final mountain points.
He hit the plateau to the finish at 20 seconds up on the rest, a slim advantage to hold for 6km of racing. Back in the GC group, Arensman set off on the attack, the Dutchman keen to make up the 1:20 he needed to join Almeida in leapfrogging the ailing Rodríguez.
Nobody could make it across to Carapaz, though, as the 29-year-old Olympic champion held on to celebrate another stage win. 13 seconds after he had crossed the line, Evenepoel finished the stage, his Vuelta victory in the bag, breaking down in tears of joy having secured the biggest win of his career.
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