Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) wins stage 6 of the Volta a Catalunya after 132 km off the front with Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Marauding Carapaz and Higuita carry out highway robbery in Catalunya

Richard Carapaz took stage 6 victory and Sergio Higuita grabbed the race lead as UAE Team Emirates faltered.

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Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) took the win on the penultimate stage of the Volta a Catalunya on a day that many will want to forget. Not Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe), though, who went mano a mano with Carapaz and stole the race lead from overnight leader João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates).

UAE Team Emirates had been having a great week up to this point, Almeida and next-big-thing Juan Ayuso playing key roles in the stage-by-stage narrative. However, stage 6 saw them unravel, just as the Ineos Grenadiers took control.

The stage got underway without Michael Woods (Israel-Premier Tech), Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – who hadn’t dropped out of a week-long stage race since 2015 – among others who join the long list of sickness-related DNFs. What was left of the peloton rolled out of a damp Salou with 168.6 wet and windy kilometres ahead of them.

Almeida had just a second to defend over Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) after snatching a bonus second on Friday’s stage, so his team ought to have been on high alert from the start, but they were caught napping on the first categorised climb (of three) after going uphill from the gun.

Luke Plapp would end the stage in the team car, but not before going on the attack 132 km out with Richard Carapaz and Sergio Higuita.

For the nth time this season, young Australian Luke Plapp showed his enormous value with a massive attack with 132 km to go, taking teammate Carapaz with him. Higuita, who sat just seven seconds off the race lead, was the only rider who reacted, and UAE Team Emirates watched the Volta a Catalunya disappear up the road.

“To be honest it was my mistake,” Almeida said after the finish. “I started the first climb way too far back. But that’s bike racing, you make mistakes sometimes. It was a hard day out there. I think the whole peloton was weary today in these conditions. In the end it wasn’t too bad, and tomorrow is another day.”

Out front, Plapp was instrumental in forging a gap over a scrambled peloton before leaving Carapaz and Higuita to it. By the halfway point, they had more than three minutes in hand, and with most of the climbing done – almost 3,000m in total – it seemed certain that only bad luck could rob them of victory.

“At the start, we had a plan to attack on the first climb because we knew the hardest part was early on, and we knew if the peloton got over that intact then there would be little chance of us staying away and it could all come down to a sprint,” Carapaz said. “So we went for it early on and whoever came with me, came with me. Higuita and I collaborated well and that was what allowed our break to stay away.”

Marc Soler and Rui Costa lead the chase for UAE Team Emirates.

With the leader’s jersey in their ranks, it was up to UAE Team Emirates to control the peloton. For a long time it was Marc Soler against the world – his job made all the more tricky by a drag parachute of Ineos riders – but the whole team’s motivation seemed to droop when they passed 50 km to go. The chase was soon reinvigorated when Uno-X and Bahrain-Victorious joined the push, but their matches burned out fast and the leaders still held two minutes after cresting the final climb, just 28 km of damp descent ahead of them.

In the chase, Ayuso descended as if on rails, disappearing into no man’s land in a move that raised eyebrows, but whether his presence in the fractured peloton would have made much difference is doubtful given the 48-second winning margin. Regardless, his flash of action was neutralised by a combination of the Quintana-led chase and an apparently busted radio.

Attackers Higuita and Carapaz – his gold frame shining bright – were unfazed by the wet and windy weather in the mountains.

Ultimately, Carapaz and Higuita worked together all the way back to the coast where they fought over the spoils, no gentlemen’s agreement to speak of. The Colombian led from the front and Carapaz was able to fly off his wheel to take an emotional stage win in Cambrils. Stage 2 winner Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco) led what remained of the peloton home 48 seconds later.

“After a very tough start to the season, getting that stage win, being up there overall is very positive for me, both here and for my objectives further in the season,” Carapaz said.

Higuita meanwhile settled for the lead in the youth, KOM and overall classifications, 16 seconds ahead of Carapaz and 52 seconds over Almeida who slipped to third. No rider has yet held the race lead for more than one stage, and with such small margins and an attack-friendly course, it’s all to play for on Sunday’s final stage finishing in Barcelona.

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