Richard Carapaz made his way through the mixed zone in Santa Rosa de Viterbo wearing an unfamiliar blue jersey and clutching a stuffed tiger. The Tour Colombia doles out more prizes than most and the Ecuadorian had just been feted on the podium as El favorito de la afición – ‘the fans’ favourite’ – for his efforts on stage 2.
If there was a straw poll of the overall contenders at the finish, they might also have voted for the EF Education-EasyPost rider. They certainly had reason to be grateful for his intervention given that a break of dangermen, including eventual stage winner Harold Tejada (Astana-Qazaqstan), had entered the final 20km of Tuesday’s stage clutching a lead of more than two minutes over the peloton.
For much of the day, Nairo Quintana’s Movistar squad had performed the bulk of the pace-making in the bunch, as the only one of the favourites without representation out in front. EF Education-EasyPost’s leaders Carapaz, Rigoberto Urán and Esteban Chaves had teammate Andrea Piccolo in the move, while Egan Bernal had two companions from the Colombian national squad up the road.
As the kilometres ticked down, however, it became increasingly clear that Quintana’s squad alone would not suffice to keep the break under control. On the run-in to the late climb of the Alto Malterias, Carapaz moved to the front of the chasing peloton, and his efforts helped to reduce the break’s spiralling advantage.
The final ascent did the rest, as the men with designs on overall victory came to the fore. The group of favourites was pared down to 20 riders, and they slashed their deficit before the short drop towards the line, eventually coming home 23 seconds down on Tejada who outsprinted Piccolo to the win.
“We wanted Piccolo to get to the line and fight for the win, but we also didn’t want to give up too much time,” Carapaz explained after he descended from the podium. “In the end, it was part of the strategy of the team. We knew that Rigo and Chaves were in a good moment too, so we just wanted to cut the gap a bit to stay in contention for the general classification.
“We were happy with the situation for most of the day, because we had Piccolo out in front and that meant we could stay a bit more calm, but it was still important to maintain our options for the days ahead.”
Thanks to the stage winner’s time bonus, Tejada now has a buffer of 34 seconds over Carapaz, Urán, Quintana and Bernal, and the Astana-Qazaqstan rider was upbeat about his prospects of fending off the favourites on the pivotal ascent of the Alto del Vino on the penultimate day.
“It’s a significant gap and Harold Tejada is an important rider,” Carapaz admitted, though he pointed out that there might be further frissons among the overall contenders on stage 3 around Tunja, which features rolling terrain throughout the day and a slight incline to the finish.
“The Alto del Vino will be decisive but there’s a lot of altitude gain across the day tomorrow, so I think it will be pretty demanding too.”
Carapaz’s cameo here, however, raises questions about his precise role in EF Education-EasyPost’s strategy this week. The Olympic champion, who has made the Ardennes Classics and Tour de France his main objectives for 2024, suggested that EF Education-EasyPost’s general classification hopes were pinned primarily on the two home riders, Urán and Chaves.
“I don’t have any pressure for this race,” Carapaz said. “I can ride with freedom here, it’s sort of a ‘free’ race for me in a way. I’m here for my teammates and I was glad to keep them in front for the days ahead.”
And yet, coming off the back of such an ill-starred debut campaign with EF Education-EasyPost, Carapaz will surely be looking for some reassurance of his own in Colombia this week as he builds towards loftier goals down the line. “The truth is I’m going quite well,” he said. “This is an important race and I’ve prepared well for it, as well as I could. I think the Alto del Vino will be a nice test.”