HIGUITA CLAIMS BREAKTHROUGH OVERALL VICTORY
Without both the Slovenian superstars Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), the Volta a Catalunya presented an opportunity for another GC rider to claim a first WorldTour stage race this season, and outline themselves as the best of the rest.
After a hard-fought week of racing, eventually it was Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) who came out on top. He kept himself well in the mix on the summit finish skirmishes of stage three and four before launching an outrageous 130km attack with Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) on stage six, and managed to defend his lead with relative ease despite a testing circuit in Barcelona the following day.
The 24-year-old has improved steadily since turning pro a few years ago, and this was his best performance yet. Climbing alongside the likes of Carapaz and Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) on the summit finishes was impressive enough in and of itself; to have the temerity to go all-in for overall victory with such a ambitious attack, and then not to succumb to either 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.
The move this year to Bora-Hansgrohe appears to have been a success, and Higuita will now start being talked about as one of the top GC contenders for stage race — albeit not necessarily ones that, unlike this one, feature time trialling kilometres.
That’s another area of his game he’ll need to develop, but at the rate he’s improving it might not be long until he’s one of the world’s best sage racers.
BOLDNESS MAKES THE DIFFERENCE IN A FLUCTUATING GC BATTLE
This was a Volta a Catalunya of fluctuating fortunes, where bold ambition ultimately proved decisive in determining the outcome.
Just when it seemed that, following the former’s victory atop the stage four summit finish, the GC race was to be a two-man showdown between João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and Nairo Quintana, Sergio Higuita and Richard Carapaz turned the whole race on its head with an entirely unexpected attack 130km from the finish of an undulating stage that was not even presumed to be a GC stage.
Before then Almeida and Quintana were fighting over mere seconds, each contesting an intermediate sprint on stage five that saw the former overtake the latter as overall leader, but neither rider had seen the big picture that Carapaz and Higuita were envisioning.
It was Carapaz and Ineos Grenadiers who hatched the plan, asking talented young climber Luke Plapp to give 100% on a climb early in the stage in order to put the other GC riders under pressure. It worked like a dream, as everyone else was dropped save for Higuita, who Carapaz found to be a willing ally to work together all the way to the finish.
Carapaz might not have been able to gain the extra 16 seconds he needed to overtake Higuita on the final stage in Barcelona, but a stage win and second overall is still a fine return for his efforts. The Ecuadorian is a real racer, and the kind of awkward opponent who you can never consider definitely out of contention.
TACTICAL MISHAPS COST UAE TEAM EMIRATES ANOTHER STAGE RACE TITLE
Although there are positives UAE Team Emirates can take from this race, tactical mishaps probably cost them the overall title.
The performances of teenager Juan Ayuso were hugely encouraging, as he showed for the first time what he could do at WorldTour level having impressed so much at under-23 level last year and in some semi-Classics earlier this spring.
But he and João Almeida failed to ride well as GC co-leaders, with an apparent lack of joined-up thinking of what their tactical approach was.
The worst and most definitive moment was their failure to bring back Higuita and Carapaz on stage six. There didn’t seem to be much cohesion in the chase, especially when Ayuso took off on a descent while Almeida remained adrift. Ayuso eventually sat up and rejoined the chasing peloton, but the time they lost while he could have been pacing Almeida might just have cost them the race.
The team certainly tried to use their strength in numbers, with Marc Soler getting into the break on stage four while he was still a GC threat, and George Bennett later attacking on the final climb to help soften up the opposition and set Almeida up for the stage victory.
That win, and third and fifth finishes respectively on GC for Almeida and Ayuso, means the team still take something from this race. But by the very high standards they’ve set this year, it’s a disappointing return.
BRIT VERNON PART OF A NEW GENERATION OF SPRINTERS
As huge as the boom in British road cycling has been over these last few decades, there has been a notable lack of sprinters following in the footsteps of Mark Cavendish. The likes of Ben Swift and Daniel McLay have enjoyed some success, but none has stepped up to become a genuine successor to the Manx Missile.
That might be about to change, as 21-year-old Ethan Vernon burst onto the scene at the Volta a Catalunya with an unexpected victory in the bunch sprint on stage five.
The win marks an exceptionally quick transition to the highest level for Vernon, for whom the victory was not just his first at WorldTour level, but his first of any kind at professional level.
He only turned pro this year following success at under-23 level, where he won a stage at last year’s Tour de l’Avenir and claimed seventh in the World Championships time trial, and on the track, where he represented Great Britain in the team pursuit at the Olympics last year.
Along with 23-year-old Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco), who won stage two and the points classification, and Vernon’s 23-year-old team-mate Andrea Bagioli, who survived the climbs to sprint for victory on the final stage, and it seemed a new generation of sprinting stars was on display in Catalunya. And with Mark Cavendish as a team-mate at Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Vernon has the best tutor a developing sprinter could hope for.
AUSTRALIAN CYCLING IS IN RUDE HEALTH
Any avid Australian cycling fans who braved the late nights to catch live coverage of the Volta a Catalunya will have been richly rewarded for their commitment, as Aussie riders enjoyed a clean sweep of three wins in the opening three stages.
Two of those victories came from BikeExchange-Jayco, who continue to be made up of a majority of Australian riders. The experienced Michael Matthews struck first with a victory that was essential for both him personally, in that it ended a 19-month drought without one, and the team as a whole, who are one of those at risk of relegation from the WorldTour.
He then embodied a great team spirit by leading out young compatriot Kaden Groves to win the bunch 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 the line of Caleb Ewan, Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady in becoming the nation’s latest star sprinter.
Australia also had representation in the mountains, as Ben O’Conor attacked on the uphill finish at La Molina the next day to make it three wins in three for the nation. Following similar moves at the Tour de France last year and the 2020 Giro d’Italia, successful attacks from the bottom of climbs are fast becoming a trademark for the 26-year-old, and although he wasn’t able to keep up with the pace and defend his overall lead the following day, he did manage to finish sixth overall.
With Jai Hindley also impressing by sticking with Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Higuita on the final stage to seal overall victory, this year’s Volta a Catalunya showed Australian cycling to be in rude health.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.