"We're ready to take on anything that the mountains throw at us. The weather doesn't worry me too much."
It's one o'clock on the Giro d'Italia's third and final rest day, and Richard Carapaz is looking relaxed on the Zoom screens of journalists in Italy and around the world from the shores of Lake Garda.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider is calmly batting away questions about the final six stage of the corsa rosa. There might be an incredibly tough week to come, with 18,961 metres of climbing, starting on Tuesday, but Carapaz is where he wants to be.
The Ecuadorean claimed the pink jersey after Saturday's stage around Torino, inheriting it after Juan Pedro López dropped away. He did try something spectacular, attacking on his own with just under 30km to go. It didn't work out, but it showed his intent at this Giro. Despite four riders being within 61 seconds, he is clearly the favourite to stand atop the podium in Verona next Sunday.
Carapaz took the lead on general classification on stage 14, just as he did in 2019, when he went on to win the Giro d'Italia; his first Grand Tour win, and Ecuador's first. As three years ago, the final stage will be a time trial around the city where Romeo and Juliet once fell in love.
"I feel even better than I did in 2019, even if then the victory was far from assured, so that gives me even more confidence for the week to come," he explained to journalists.
Tuesday is the race's queen stage, with 5,268 vertical metres being tackled by the peloton. Among the climbs featured is the Passo del Mortirolo, which also was part of 2019's Giro, on stage 16 again. The echoes of his past victory must be comforting to Carapaz.
On Saturday, the penultimate day, there are 4,718 metres of climbing, including the Passo Pordoi, the highest point of this year's race. The Ineos rider is ready for them.
"The week ahead of us favours us even more. There are a lot of metres of climbing with long rides to the top of the climbs," he said. These are comfortable areas for Carapaz, a fact that will worry his rival.
"I've really focused on being strong for these mountain stages. We also have the maglia rosa and that gives us extra motivation to defend it. We don't have a quiet day all week. The key will be to be focused, take it day by day, and try to minimise any losses. We're ready to leave everything on the road. The team is calm and optimistic about what lies ahead in the next week."
Unlike other teams at the top of the GC, Ineos Grenadiers have invested all their efforts into one rider. While Bahrain-Victorious have Mikel Landa and Pello Bilbao in the top ten, and Bora-Hansgrohe have Jai Hindley and Emmanuel Buchmann up there, the British squad have just Carapaz.
They are also purely a team targeting the overall win, unlike UAE-Team Emirates with their strategy split between João Almeida and sprinter Fernando Gaviria. Before Biniam Girmay went home, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert also had a similar divergent strategy, with Domenico Pozzovivo currently fifth on GC.
"The team will count for a lot during the final week," Carapaz said
"If you're caught out alone you can really pay for it. The team is strong for the mountains with Richie [Porte], Pavel [Sivakov], Ben [Tulett], and [Jonathan] Castroviejo is getting better after a crash.
"Most of our rivals were alone or with fewer teammates on Sunday. There were five of us in the finale of the stage to Cogne and during the hard final week, it's important to have at least one teammate at your side in the decisive moments. We're motivated."
The Ecuadorean is all too aware of who his main rivals are for the pink jersey, they are all within a minute of him. Unlike him, however, none of the top four have ever won a Grand Tour.
"We have a good idea of who will be there to fight for the jersey," Carapaz said. "There's Hindley and Almeida, and Landa is a big candidate too."
The battle starts on Tuesday, and he certainly made it sound like he was ready for the Alps during the press conference.
"The key in this Giro really starts tomorrow," the Ineos rider said. "Tuesday's stage features 5,000 metres and the weariness will start to be felt.
"I think these four big days in the mountains will be the biggest part in who decides who wins the Giro. The time trial final will not be so decisive in who wins or who doesn't win the Giro."
Bad weather may be forecast, but Carapaz is ready for his biggest test so far. Six days to decide whether he can claim a second pink jersey await, and he is confident. It might just be seven seconds between him and Hindley in second, but he is only looking upwards from here. The label of favourite does not sit heavily on him.
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