HIGUITA TAKES A REVOLUTIONARY GENERAL VICTORY
Without Slovenian superstars Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), the Volta a Catalunya offered the opportunity for another GC rider to win a first WorldTour stage race this season and stand as the best of rest.
>>> A “dream come true” for Sergio Higuita, winner of the Volta a Catalunya, who is now aiming for a place among the best drivers in the GC
After a hard-fought week of racing, it was finally Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) who won. He held well in the mix during the finish skirmishes at the top of stages three and four before launching an outrageous 130km attack with Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) on stage six, and managed to defend his advance with relative ease despite a test circuit in Barcelona the following day.
The 24-year-old has improved steadily since turning professional a few years ago, and it was his best showing yet. Climbing alongside Carapaz and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) on the summit finishes was quite impressive in itself; having the temerity to go all-in for the overall win with such an ambitious offense and then not succumb to fatigue or pressure in what was for him an entirely new scenario of defending an overall lead on the final day of a stage race, was the performance of a star in the making.
This year’s move to Bora-Hansgrohe appears to have been a success, and Higuita will now start to be seen as one of the top contenders in the GC for stage races – though not necessarily ones which, unlike this one, feature kilometers of time trial.
This is another area of his game that he will need to develop, but at the rate he is improving, it may not be long before he becomes one of the best sage runners in the world.
AUDACITY MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN A FLUCTUATING GC BATTLE
It was a Volta a Catalunya of fluctuating fortunes, where bold ambition ultimately proved decisive in determining the outcome.
Just when it seemed that after the victory of the first at the top of the fourth stage, the GC race was to be a confrontation between João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Nairo Quintana, Sergio Higuita and Richard Carapaz turned all the race. his head with a completely unexpected attack 130km from the finish of a hilly stage that was not even presumed to be a GC stage.
Prior to that, Almeida and Quintana were battling within seconds, each contesting an intermediate sprint on stage five which saw the former overtake the latter as overall leader, but neither rider had seen the big picture that Carapaz and Higuita were contemplating.
It was Carapaz and Ineos Grenadiers who came up with the plan, asking the talented young climber Luke Plapp to give 100% in a climb at the start of the stage in order to put the other GC riders under pressure. It worked like a dream, as everyone was dropped except for Higuita, whom Carapaz found to be an ally willing to work together until the finish.
Carapaz might not have been able to earn the extra 16 seconds he needed to overtake Higuita on the final stage in Barcelona, but a stage win and second place overall is always good return for his efforts. The Ecuadorian is a real runner and the kind of clumsy opponent you can never consider definitively out of action.
TACTICAL INCIDENTS COSTS UAE TEAM ANOTHER STAGE RACE TITLE
While there are positives UAE Team Emirates can take from this run, tactical mishaps likely cost them the overall title.
Teenager Juan Ayuso’s performances were hugely encouraging as he showed for the first time what he can do at WorldTour level after impressing so much at Under-23 level last year and in some semis. -classics earlier this spring.
But he and João Almeida didn’t ride well as co-leaders of the GC, with an apparent lack of joint thinking about their tactical approach.
The worst and most definitive moment was their failure to bring Higuita and Carapaz back on stage six. There didn’t seem to be much cohesion in the chase, especially when Ayuso swooped downhill while Almeida stayed adrift. Ayuso eventually sat down and joined the chasing pack, but the time they lost when he could have surveyed Almeida could have cost them the race.
The team certainly tried to use their strength in numbers, with Marc Soler entering the fourth stage break while still a GC threat, and George Bennett attacking later on the final climb to help soften the opposition and prepare Almeida for the stage victory.
This win, and third and fifth GC finishes for Almeida and Ayuso respectively, means the team still gets something out of this race. But by the very high standards they’ve set this year, it’s a disappointing comeback.
BRIT VERNON IS PART OF A NEW GENERATION OF SPRINTERS
Huge as the boom in British road cycling has been over the past few decades, there has been a noticeable lack of sprinters following in the footsteps of Mark Cavendish. The likes of Ben Swift and Daniel McLay enjoyed some success, but neither stepped up to become a true successor to the Manx Missile.
That could be about to change, as 21-year-old Ethan Vernon burst onto the scene at the Volta a Catalunya with an unexpected peloton sprint victory on stage five.
The victory marks an exceptionally quick transition to the top level for Vernon, for whom the win was not just his first at the WorldTour level, but his first of any kind at the professional level.
He only turned professional this year after success at under-23 level, where he won a stage in the Tour de l’Avenir last year and finished seventh in the time trial of the Championships. in the world, and on the track, where he represented Great Britain on the team. pursuit at the Olympics last year.
With Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco), 23, who won the second stage and the points classification, and Vernon’s teammate Andrea Bagioli, 23, who survived the climbs to sprint for victory on the last stage, and it looked like a new generation of sprint stars were on display in Catalonia. And with Mark Cavendish as his teammate at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Vernon has the best tutor a developing sprinter could hope for.
AUSTRALIAN CYCLING IS IN GOOD HEALTH
Any Australian cycling enthusiasts who braved the late nights to catch live coverage of the Volta a Catalunya will have been richly rewarded for their commitment, as Australian riders took three wins in the opening three stages.
Two of those wins came from BikeExchange-Jayco, which continues to be made up of a majority of Australian riders. The experienced Michael Matthews struck first with a victory that was essential both for him personally, in that it ended a 19-month drought without one, and for the team as a whole, which makes part of those who risk being relegated from the WorldTour.
He then showed great team spirit as he led his young compatriot Kaden Groves to win the peloton sprint the following day. It’s been a long time since the team unearthed a new Australian star, but Groves looks good enough to follow in the line of Caleb Ewan, Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady in becoming the country’s latest star sprinter.
Australia were also represented in the mountains, as Ben O’Conor attacked on the uphill finish at La Molina the next day to claim three wins from three for the nation. After similar moves at the Tour de France last year and the Giro d’Italia 2020, successful attacks from the bottom of the climbs are quickly becoming a trademark for the 26-year-old, and although he hasn’t been able to keep pace and defend his overall lead the following day, he managed to finish sixth overall.
With Jai Hindley also impressing by sticking with his Bora-Hansgrohe team-mate Higuita on the final stage to seal overall victory, this year’s Volta a Catalunya showed Australian cycling was in poor health.