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Despite falling just short of cracking Primož Roglič on the race’s final climb up La Covatilla and seeing the winning margin earned by time bonuses, the Ecuadorian was over the moon with his performance at the Spanish grand tour.
Why? Because his steady ride came under high pressure following his high-profile and contentious transfer from Movistar to Ineos Grenadiers coming into 2020. And it confirmed that his 2019 Giro d’Italia victory was no fluke.
With his Vuelta performance, Carapaz silenced any critics and secured himself a spot at the very top of the Ineos Grenadiers pecking order going into 2021.
No wonder Carapaz was running around outside the Ineos Grenadiers bus Sunday in Madrid to celebrate with hundreds of Ecuadorian fans who showed up to celebrate another cycling breakthrough for the South American country as the first to hit the Vuelta podium.
“No regrets,” Carapaz said. “I raced as hard as I could. Of course, I wanted to win, but finishing this season with second place is very satisfying.”
If there was any question about Carapaz’s class coming into 2020, he emphatically erased them with back-to-back steady performances at the Tour de France and Vuelta.
A few whispers had suggested that Carapaz’s Giro victory last year at Movistar came because Roglič and Vincenzo Nibali got into a spat, and lowered their guard to let Carapaz ride away with the pink jersey. Carapaz did blitz the Giro, but he won because he was the strongest in the race, not because of squabbling between the two pre-race favorites.
At the Tour, Carapaz single-handedly lifted the Ineos Grenadiers team from the rubble of Egan Bernal’s unexpected implosion. Carapaz was a late addition to the Tour team — he was supposed to defend his title at the Giro instead — and once Bernal left the race, the Ecuadorian stepped into the void with three consecutive attacks across the Alps.
Though his personal bid for victory fell short, he generously let teammate and Ineos stalwart Michal Kwiatkowski win in the Tour’s final mountain stage. With 13th overall, he was the top rider for an Ineos Grenadiers team wondering what had just happened to them.
The team rebounded in the Giro with an equally unexpected victory with Tao Geoghegan Hart. Carapaz carried that momentum into the Vuelta, and went toe-to-toe with Roglič and arch-rival Jumbo-Visma with a team that didn’t include much firepower.
Carapaz left the Vuelta optimistic about his future place in the Ineos Grenadiers hierarchy going into 2021.
“We will see what each of the grand tour routes look like,” said Carapaz, racing the Vuelta under-manned after two riders left early. “We’ll be going for a grand tour next year, but we’ll come back with a team that is fully competitive.”
Carapaz had pressure this year, and he responded. Of the high-profile transfers coming into the 2020 season, which also included the likes of Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana, and Elia Viviani changing teams, Carapaz was by far the most successful.
His performances at the Tour and Vuelta will skyrocket his stock among the Ineos Grenadiers brain trust going into next season.
Despite the departure of Chris Froome for Israel Start-Up Nation, the team remains stacked with GC firepower. Right at the top will be Bernal and Geraint Thomas. Everyone is hoping that Bernal’s troubles in 2020 were little more than a hiccup, and Thomas should see at least one more shot at leadership if his power numbers hold up.
So where does that leave Carapaz? With a wave of new talent coming on board for 2021, including Richie Porte, Adam Yates, Dani Martínez, Laurens De Plus and touted rookie Thomas Pidcock, coupled with the emergence of Geoghegan Hart and the untapped promise of Pavel Sivakov, it’s going to be crowded at the top.
Porte is already committed to slotting into a helper’s role, but most of the others will want to have their chances at some point on the calendar.
Ineos Grenadiers may well bring three GC options to the 2021 Tour, with Bernal, Thomas, and Carapaz leading the way. No team has been as adept at managing multiple interests and egos as Ineos Grenadiers. Bernal’s collapse in 2020 will only underscore the importance of having at least one Plan B for the Tour.
With such a deep team, Ineos Grenadiers could also spread the wealth and try to win all three grand tours in one season, a long-held dream of team boss Dave Brailsford.
Whether he shows up at the Tour or goes back to the Giro, Carapaz will have a starring role in 2021. And he earned it on the roads of 2020.