Tearful Evenepoel set to win Vuelta after protecting lead

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.

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.

“I don’t know what’s going through my head and my body right now. It’s amazing. All the critics and the bad comments I received after last year, I think I finally delivered and answered with my pedals,” Evenepoel said. “I’ve been working so hard to come here in the best shape possible. To now win this Vuelta is just amazing. It’s actually the first Grand Tour I start healthy.

“(This is) for Belgium, for my teammates, my family, my fiancee… I have been away so many weeks and months, it is for them.”

Evenepoel had a difficult 2021, abandoning the Giro d’Italia after a crash in the 17th stage, and facing criticism from Eddy Merckx over what the Belgian great said was his unwillingness to ride for the team. But Evenepoel has rebounded this year, also winning the San Sebastián Classic for a second time in June. His first race win as a professional came at age 19 when he won the single-day race in northern Spain.

Richard Carapaz won the 181-kilometer (112-mile) stage from Moralzarzal to Puerto de Navacerrada that included three category-one climbs in 4 hours, 41 minutes. It was the third stage win of this Vuelta for Carapaz. The Olympic gold medalist and the 2019 Giro 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. The Spaniard only shaved two seconds off Evenepoel’s advantage, which stands at 2 minutes, 5 seconds.

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.

“Today I responded with the legs. I didn’t think about winning the stage, I just wanted to win the general classification,” Evenepoel said. “I only had to follow, to control and believe in my power. In the end the race was super hard but we did really well. It’s the most beautiful day of my life.”

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