Imperious Carapaz wins Giro as Nibali comes up short

Richard Carapaz saw off Italian Vincenzo Nibali to become the first Ecuadorian cyclist to win a grand tour. Photo credit: Giro d'Italia

VERONA - Richard Carapaz became Ecuador’s first grand tour champion as he crossed the 2019 Giro d’Italia finish line in the coveted maglia rosa, welcomed into the Verona Arena by the deafening cheers of hundreds of his compatriots and the dizzying blur of yellow, red, and blue flags.

 Carapaz was unable to control his emotion, stooped over his handlebars head in hands and visibly moved as the reality of his achievement sunk in and the weight of an expectant nation dissipated and became adulation.

 It was nothing less than the 26-year-old deserved, and his impressive performances day-in day-out managed to win over large swathes of the home crowd even though this precious victory had come at the expense of their homegrown hero, Vincenzo Nibali.

 “It is an incredible feeling, I still can’t believe it. It’s a dream, yet also the reward for all the sacrifices I have made… This is the biggest moment of my sporting career,” the victor jubilantly declared as he was joined on the podium by his two children and congratulated by his parents who had flown over for the final stage in what was their first ever trip on an airplane.

 Carapaz had come into the race a relative unknown. While he had finished fourth in the 2018 edition of the Giro, winning a stage and briefly holding the jersey for the best young rider, he rather drifted off the radar and could only manage 18th place in the Vuelta a España later that year.

 Rather than being written off before the race began, he simply did not feature amongst the pre-race favourites for the maglia rosa drawn up by the cycling world. In fact, it was his Movistar teammate Mikel Landa who was expected to be the outfit’s main contender for the top prize.

 And perhaps it was just this lack of expectation that enabled Carapaz to power to victory. Underestimated by fans and riders alike, he was allowed to slip off the front of the peloton on two consecutive days in the high mountains, gaining precious minutes on fellow general classification hopefuls, powering to a second 2019 stage win with victory in Courmayeur following his triumphant first week sprint in Frascati, and donning the maglia rosa in the process.  

 Both Nibali and the hotly tipped pre-race favourite Primož Roglič, who ultimately finished third, seemed so preoccupied in checking each other’s advances that by the time they realised Carapaz was a force to be reckoned with, their Giro was as good as lost.

 “We made a mistake in letting Richard get away,” Nibali later conceded, adding that he simply did not have enough to close the gap once he and Roglič recognised their game of cat and mouse had backfired. “At first, we chased, but in the end everyone’s legs were what they were and [Carapaz] found the space to take a gap that he consolidated to the end.”

 Nibali will surely, despite the praise he showered on his rival after the race, be left wondering how a man of his experience let the race slip away from him in such a manner. Whether arrogance or a simple miscalculation, Nibali passed up perhaps the best opportunity to seal a third Giro d’Italia crown he will have in a career slowly coming to an end.

 While he bled circa two minutes to Roglič over the two time-trials in the opening week, Nibali looked impressive and assured in the mountains and, with the home crowd behind him, was within touching distance of the pink for much of the race as his Slovenian rival showed real signs of weakness as the peloton went uphill.

 Nibali lost three minutes and thirteen seconds to Carapaz over stages 13 and 14, the two ultimately decisive days in the mountains. He would go on to come second by just 65 seconds, knowing that if he had simply kept within touching distance of the Ecuadorian on either of the two days, the jersey would have been his.

 This, however, is not to take anything from Carapaz or to say that he won solely as a result of the inattention of his rivals. He was, simply put, the strongest man out there over three weeks, and even when defending the leader’s jersey from attack after attack, he seemed to be holding back. He regularly dropped both Nibali and Roglič with explosive bursts in the closing stages of the race and many believe his margin of victory could have been much larger had he thought it necessary to kick on and not just defend.

 In fact, in an unusual reversal of roles, he worked tirelessly as a domestique for Mikel Landa on the penultimate stage, trying to secure a victory for his teammate, rather than focussing on his rivals, such was his assuredness in his legs.

 Judging by the strength he had, it would have taken a betting man to count against him lifting the Trofeo Senza Fine in Verona even if he had been marked from the start. While Nibali may leave the race disappointed on account of his tactical blunders, the truth is he was probably just not good enough when it mattered.

 While Italian hopes of a maglia rosa faded with Nibali, there was plenty for them to cheer about at what was ultimately a successful Giro for the home crowd. Valerio Conti held the leader’s jersey for six consecutive days following a stunning breakaway move, while Italian riders claimed five stage wins throughout the course of the race, Fausto Masnada, Cesare Benedetti, Dario Cataldo, Damiano Cima and Giulio Ciccone all crossing the finish line with their arms aloft.

 Ciccone in particular had a Giro to remember as he comfortably won the King of the Mountains classification for the race’s best climber, a competition dominated by local riders.

 The jersey for the best sprinter went to German rider Pascal Ackermann while Colombian Miguel Ángel López, who was fortunate not to be disqualified from the race after assaulting a fan who knocked him off his bike on the race’s final climb up to Monte Avena, won the best young rider’s competition for the second year running.

 Carapaz topped the maglia rosa classification, followed by Vincenzo Nibali (+1’ 05”), Primož Roglič (+2’ 30”), Mikel Landa (+2’ 38”), Bauke Mollema (+5’ 34”), Rafał Majka (+6’ 56”), Miguel Ángel López (+7’ 26”), Simon Yates (+7’ 49”), Pavel Sivakov (+8’ 56”) and Ilnur Zakarin (+12’ 14”).

 The peloton will now turn its attention to a series of week-long stage races before the sport’s biggest names take to the start line of the second grand tour of the year, the Tour De France, which kicks off in Brussels on July 6.

 Italian fans will hope that Nibali, this time, makes his experience show and can reclaim the maillot jaune he won in 2014.