Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) leads the GC group on the final climb of stage 20 of the 2022 Vuelta a España.

One day more: The GC riders line up behind history-maker Remco Evenepoel

The combination of Thymen Arensman's determination and the misfortune of Carlos Rodríguez created the only shifts on stage 20.

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20 stages down, one to go. Destination: Madrid. The Vuelta a España is 100 kilometres from drawing to a close, but the celebrations have already begun for Remco Evenepoel who is hours from becoming the first Belgian to win a Grand Tour in almost half a century.

Joining him on the podium are a Spanish duo at two very different places in their careers: nearly man Enric Mas and 19-year-old debutant Juan Ayuso.

As is always the case, the top 10 and the whole race would have looked very different had certain riders not fallen victim to bad luck, bad form or COVID-19’s enduring presence. But what happened happened, and in the real world away from what-ifs, the GC is all but finalised ahead of the final sprint stage in Madrid.

A champion in waiting.

The general classification after stage 20

  1. Remco Evenepoel
  2. Enric Mas +2:05
  3. Juan Ayuso +5:08
  4. Miguel Ángel López +5:56
  5. João Almeida +7:16
  6. Thymen Arensman +7:56
  7. Carlos Rodríguez +7:57
  8. Ben O’Connor +10:10
  9. Rigoberto Urán +11:04
  10. Jai Hindley +12:01

A two-horse race

Since Primož Roglič’s untimely departure – and subsequent very public tantrum – it’s been a two-horse race between Evenepoel and Mas, the Movistar man sitting just over two minutes in arrears of the young Belgian. With the defending champion and overwhelming favourite out of the picture before the mountainous finale, Mas was presented with a potentially career-defining opportunity – the chance to finally mount the top step of a Grand Tour podium, and at his home race at that.

However, the terrain of the final week, usually lung-bustingly brutal, was relatively tame, and it would be a tall order for the high mountain specialist to take back significant time.

The bigger problem though, was the man in red, who’d proved stage after stage that he was not only riding strong but also recovering like the best of them. There was hope after Evenepoel lost time on stage 14, but even there he hardly ‘cracked’, and with ever increasing distance from his stage 12 crash, the 22-year-old seemed only to tighten his grip.

In the end, it all came down to stage 20. Despite the best efforts of UAE Team Emirates and Movistar, the red jersey had actually gained a little time on stage 18, and the GC teams took the day off on Friday.

One more day, one more chance, and on terrain that has set the stage for a mugging before, albeit with a rather different GC picture; Tom Dumoulin only led Fabio Aru by six seconds going into stage 20 in 2015, and after a coordinated effort by Astana, Aru stole the red jersey and the Dutchman rolled home almost four minutes down, dropping to sixth overall and climbing into a team car, a picture of devastation.

History fed hope this weekend, but it wasn’t to be.

The GC race waited until the penultimate climb – the Cat.1 Puerto de la Morcuera, 9.2 km at 6.8% – and there was neither the firepower nor the difficulty to make a difference.

“We done?” (Only missing a handshake…)

Movistar had set a fierce pace on the lower slopes, recruiting Alejandro Valverde from the breakaway and making good use of Carlos Verona, but Mas – who was reportedly not feeling so hot – couldn’t shake his nemesis when he finally tried to launch. Within a couple of kilometres, he’d called it a day. A third second place at the Vuelta and a sizeable dollop of UCI points would have to do.

With Movistar and Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl laying down arms, and the stage win looking like it was disappearing up the road, it was over to the rest to fight over the scraps.

Racing for the podium

Juan Ayuso came to the Vuelta hoping to echo his teammate’s 2019 exploits in his first Grand Tour, and while he was unable to match Tadej Pogačar’s trilogy of stage wins at his own first appearance, like the Slovenian Ayuso lined up for stage 20 sitting third overall.

However, while first and second place enjoyed decent advantages, Ayuso had Miguel Ángel López breathing down his neck just 42 seconds down, and the Colombian was determined to kick things into action on the final climb, both to hunt down seconds and a possible stage win. Ayuso had himself tried to break free of the red jersey group with the help of teammates Marc Soler and João Almeida, who also featured in the top ten.

Alas, it was too little too late.

The only rider to make any ground was stage 15 winner Thymen Arensman who started the day in seventh and found the 80 seconds he had to make up on an ailing Carlos Rodríguez too good an opportunity to pass up. With the young Spaniard going backwards and already ceding fifth to Almeida, Arensman time trialed away from the GC group four kilometres from the finish and staggered home eight seconds after stage winner Richard Carapaz and a handful ahead of the red jersey.

With the bonus seconds for runner-up taken into account, Arensman just needed 1:22 over the Spanish national champion. Rodríguez finished at the rear of a small group led by Alejandro Valverde 1:23 down.

In fact, calculated or not, the 21-year-old might even have his 42-year-old compatriot to thank for it being so close, Valverde having accelerated in the last hundred metres or so, stringing out the paceline to bring the group home a few seconds faster than Rodríguez, who had been leading up to that point, was capable of.

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