PUERTO DE NAVACERRADA, Spain (AP)Remco Evenepoel all but clinched his first Grand Tour title on Saturday after the 22-year-old Belgian protected his lead in the Spanish Vuelta on the three-week race’s final competitive stage.
Well-supported by his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team, Evenepoel had little trouble ensuring that Enric Mas and the Spaniard’s Movistar team were never able to challenge the two-minute lead he took into the 20th stage in mountains just north of Madrid, where the race ends on Sunday.
Evenepoel burst into tears on crossing the finish line, where he was embraced by his teammates. He is set to become the first Belgian to win a Grand Tour since 1978 when Johan De Muynck won the Giro d’Italia. Evenepoel’s first race win as a professional came in Spain when at age 19 he won the San Sebastian Classic, a race that he won for a second time in June.
The final stage is a flat 97-kilometer (60-mile) ride from Las Rozas to a finish in Spain’s capital when custom dictates that no rider challenges the pacesetter. While the team leaders will use it to enjoy the end of the grueling event, the sprinters will vie for the stage win.
Evenepoel said that he had finally ”delivered” after previous disappointment.
”All the bad comments from last year, I think I finally delivered and answered everyone,” Evenepoel said. ”I have been working so hard to come here in the best shape, and to win here is amazing. (This is) for Belgium, for my teammates, my family, my fiancee. I have been away so many weeks and months, it is for them.”
Richard Carapaz won the 181-kilometer (112-mile) trek from Moralzarzal to Puerto de Navacerrada that included three category-one climbs. It was the third stage win of this Vuelta for Carapaz. The Olympic gold medalist and the 2019 Giro d’Italia winner also won the 12th and 14th stages.
Evenepoel has held the red jersey since taking the lead in the sixth stage. His most dangerous challenger was three-time defending champion Primoz Roglic, who was gaining ground until he crashed earlier this week and had to withdraw from the race.
That left Mas as his only real threat over the final days, but the Spaniard was unable to close the gap.
Mas made his last attempt to break Evenepoel on the fourth climb up the category-one Puerta de la Morcuera after Movistar had set a hard pace and shed Evenepoel of his teammates. But Evenepoel latched onto his wheel and that was the end of Mas’ hopes.
Mas is set to finish second in the overall classification with Juan Ayuso, a 19-year-old rider of UAE Team Emirates, completing the podium.
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