It was a war on bikes in Catalunya today. In the wet and cold medium mountain terrain of stage 6, Richard Carapaz and Sergio Higuita upset the dysfunctional UAE-Emirates squad with race leader Joao Almeida and teammate prodigy Juan Ayuso, unable to cooperate again. The Ecuadorian won the stage after he was in the breakaway for over 120 kilometres with Higuita, who took the GC lead before the last stage that will start and finish in Barcelona.
The situation on the first climb of the day, Coll de les Llebres Mussara (10.5 km, 6.0%), was mental. INEOS went full-gas on the climb with Luke Plapp pacing very hard for Richard Carapaz, who was 9th in the GC, only 27 seconds back to the race leader Joao Almeida.
According to time gaps, Almeida missed early splits as he was not even in the first three groups, while his teammates, Marc Soler and Juan Ayuso, were in the front groups. Some of the early indications for complete dysfunction in the UAE-Emirates squad.
It was sad to miss such a war on the opening climb as the race broadcast started when the action had ended. It should not be too expensive to solve this problem before the broadcast starts, just send a motorbike with a camera that records everything locally before the live broadcast starts, so there is some footage to use later. Motorbikes that film races still need to follow the peloton from the start, even if the broadcast starts later. When everyone was able to tune in, the breakaway with Sergio Higuita (3rd GC, +0:07) and Richard Carapaz (9th GC, +0:27) was established. They had a huge +3:20 lead over the peloton with 75 km to go.
Marc Soler and Rui Costa were pacing and keeping the gap to 3 minutes between Higuita and Carapaz. Juan Ayuso who was 4th in GC, did not work for his team leader, Joao Almeida at all. It was looking as if the front duo might win this stage as the UAE-Emirates domestiques was running out of steam and no one was willing to help, with Soler dropping with over 40 kilometres to go in the stage.
Everything changed when the Norwegian Uno-X team started to pace. They had two riders in the GC Top 10, Tobias Halland Johannessen (7th, +0:21) and Torstein Træen (10th, +0:35). The reason why they decided to help the UAE-Emirates is not clear as no team until that point was willing to help and the peloton had not reached the final climb of the day.
Maybe it was to show sponsors at the front of the peloton or their riders needed to get warm like Van der Poel in the treacherous Tirreno-Adriatico Castelfidardo stage last year. Uno-X is a Norwegian team and their riders are used to riding in the wet and cold conditions, which are typical weather in Scandinavia. The gap started to melt quickly and later even Bahrain-Victorious was helping with sending Herman Pernsteiner at the front either to protect Wout Poels 5th place in GC or to set up an attack on the last descent of the day.
Higuita was clearly better on descents that Carapaz, who got distanced regularly. The descents were incredibly important today, with Almeida always struggling and Higuita taking time to the peloton on the most technical sections as well as putting Carapaz under some pressure.
At the start of the last climb Juan Ayuso finally started to pace for Almeida, but after cresting the climb the young Spaniard went full-gas down the descent dropping everyone from his wheel, including Almeida. As Almeida was struggling to keep contact with Ayuso, and Quintana is a brilliant descender, perhaps Ayuso was pacing to try and take away the one remaining bonus second at the last intermediate sprint, to prevent Quintana from taking it. However as Ayuso continued to pace it did not look like that was a 9000 IQ plan for the UAE-Emirates but instead just outright internecine warfare between the Almeida and Ayuso.
Ayuso was caught by the Quintana and Poels group, which formed on the descent, while Almeida was in the peloton. Luckily for the Portuguese rider, Bike Exchange-Jayco were chasing in the peloton as they had sprinter Kaden Groves. Israel Premier-Tech also was helping as they had Daryl Impey for the sprint.
Everything came together, but Higuita and Carapaz were still in the front with a minute gap. They were smart and cooperated all the way to the finish as they both needed to gain time to move higher in the GC. Higuita was forced to lead-out Carapaz, who outsprinted him in the last metres, taking a big victory today after an impressive duo breakaway.
Kaden Groves was by far the fastest from the peloton, finishing 48 seconds after the winner. Higuita becomes the new leader of the race with Carapaz second 16 seconds back. Almeida now is 3rd in the GC, with 52 seconds to Higuita.
Volta a Catalunya will end with a hilly stage in Barcelona, where everything can happen. But it will be very hard for INEOS to set-up an attack for Carapaz as they have left only two more riders in the race, Castroviejo and Rodriguez, as Plapp did not finish stage 6. Bora-Hansgrohe must let the breakaway away to get rid off the all bonus seconds.
Unfortunately, there is no available power data on Strava from Carapaz, Plapp and Higuita. The fastest rider on the first climb who uploaded power data was Tobias Johannesen. He did a massive 379 watts (6,11 w/kg) for almost 25 minutes at the start of the race, going full-gas. Ben O’Connor was in the same group and did 411 watts (6,11 w/kg) for 25 minutes. Lucas Plapp led-out Carapaz and Higuita. According to Strava, he was 47 seconds faster than Johannesen and O’Connor, which means the Australian must have pushed the same insane watts, taking into account that he did not draft as much as other riders.
It was a strong headwind on the Coll de les Llbres climb. Luke Plapp paced from the bottom of the climb and according to Naichaca’s calculations, he did 6,61 w/kg for 24:18 min, which is easily the best w/kg performance of 2022, but the climb was at the start of the race when riders had fresh legs and Plapp basically did an individual time-trial up the 6% climb and after that he pulled out of the race. Considering that it was a 6% climb and there was a strong headwind, it is estimated that Carapaz and Higuita did 0,4 w/kg less than Plapp on the climb, while drafting him. Other riders could not hold the high tempo and lost almost a minute to them on Coll de les Llebres.