Evenepoel set to win Spain’s Vuelta after protecting lead

PUERTO DE NAVACERRADA, Spain — Remco Evenepoel all but clinched his maiden Grand Tour title on Saturday after the 22-year-old Belgian secured his lead in Spain’s Vuelta on the final competitive stage of the three-week race.

Well supported by his Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team, Evenepoel had no trouble ensuring that Enric Mas and the Spaniard’s Movistar team were never able to challenge the two-minute lead that he took in the 20th stage in the mountains just north of Madrid, where the race ends on Sunday.

Evenepoel broke down in tears as he crossed the finish line, where he was hugged 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 win as a professional came in Spain when at 19 he won the San Sebastián Classic, a race he won for the second time in June.

The final stage is a flat 97 kilometer (60 mile) course from Las Rozas to a finish in the Spanish capital when custom dictates that no rider challenges the leader. While the team leaders will use it to enjoy the end of the grueling event, the sprinters will fight for the stage victory.

Evenepoel said he finally “delivered” after a previous disappointment.

“All the bad comments from last year, I think I finally delivered and responded to everyone, Evenepoel said. “I’ve worked so hard to come here in the best shape, and winning here is amazing. (It’s) for Belgium, for my team-mates, my family, my fiancée… I’ve been out for so many weeks and so many month is for them.

Richard Carapaz won the 181 kilometer (112 mile) trek from Moralzarzal to Puerto de Navacerrada which included three Category 1 climbs. It was the third stage victory of this Vuelta for Carapaz. The Olympic gold medalist and winner of the 2019 Giro d’Italia also won stages 12 and 14.

Evenepoel has held the red jersey since taking the lead in stage six. His most dangerous challenger was three-time defending champion Primoz Roglic, who was gaining ground until he crashed earlier this week and had to retire from the race.

That left Mas as his only real threat over the past few days, but the Spaniard was unable to close the gap.

Mas made his final attempt to smash Evenepoel on the fourth ascent of the Category 1 Puerta de la Morcuera after Movistar set a tough pace and got rid of Evenepoel from his teammates. But Evenepoel clung to his wheel and that was the end of Mas’ hopes.

Mas is expected to finish second overall with Juan Ayuso, a 19-year-old UAE Team Emirates driver, completing the podium.

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