Remco Evenepoel is poised to win the 2022 Vuelta a España after holding off his title rivals on a gruelling penultimate stage.
The 22-year-old Belgian has all but secured his first Grand Tour success and victory should be confirmed on Sunday, when the race ends with a 96.7km flat stage from Las Rozas into the Spanish capital, Madrid.
Coming home in sixth place, 15 seconds behind the stage 20 winner Richard Carapaz, Evenepoel maintains a lead of 2min 5sec over Enric Mas (Movistar), with Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) a further three minutes back.
Evenepoel will be the first Grand Tour winner from Belgium in 44 years, a drought that has lasted since Johan De Muynck’s Giro d’Italia victory in 1978. The Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider was overwhelmed by emotion after crossing the finish line.
“I don’t know what’s going through my head and my body right now, but it’s amazing,” Evenepoel told Eurosport. “I felt stressed today, I didn’t sleep well last night. I had to just follow and control [my rivals], believe in my power.”
“I finally delivered. All the critics and the bad comments I received after last year, I think I answered with my pedals,” he added. “I’ve been working so hard to come here in the best shape possible. To now win this Vuelta is just amazing.”
Saturday’s penultimate stage from Moralzarzal to Puerto de Navacerrada saw riders take on five categorised climbs, and the first of the day – the Category 1 Puerto de Navacerrada – splintered the peloton, with a group of more than 20 riders able to break away.
Evenepoel’s Quick-Step team managed to regain control and keep the Belgian’s GC rivals in check. With 100km left to go, Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) and Robert Stannard (Alpecin-Deceuninck) went clear at the front, but they were caught by the chasing group with two climbs still to go.
Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) then emerged as the leading trio, but Meintjes and Higuita were reeled in by the red jersey group on the final climb, with Evenepoel now looking comfortable.
The stage ended with 6.6km of flat racing on winding roads after the race’s final summit at Puerto de Cotos. Carapaz made a final push for the stage victory, pursued by Team-DSM’s Thymen Arensman and the group of general classification rivals.
Carapaz, the 2019 Giro winner who began the day in 14th place overall, held on to earn a dramatic stage victory to go with his King of the Mountains title.
“I was targeting this day, I knew it was very important,” the Ecuadorian said. “I rode my way, being smart, making my moves when I had to. Then I enjoyed a lot of support from the breakaway riders. The truth is I’m very moved – to fight for the King of Mountains was one of my goals.”
Arensman had to settle for second place, with Ayuso coming home in third and Mas, in fifth, taking just two seconds off Evenepoel’s now unassailable lead.