How long can Richard Carapaz keep the yellow jersey?

The EF Education-EasyPost rider makes history as the first Ecuadorian to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France 

While Biniam Girmay stole the headlines with his sprint victory on stage three, Eritrea was not the only nation celebrating history at the Tour de France. By taking over from Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the top of the general classification, Richard Carapaz (EF Education-EasyPost) today became the first-ever Ecuadorian to wear the yellow jersey. While their neighbouring Colombia has enjoyed plenty of success at this race, not only wearing the jersey with multiple different riders but winning it in 2019 with Egan Bernal, the rest of South America hasn’t made such an impression on the race. Today, Ecuador becomes the second nation from the continent to see one of its citizens adorn the famous jersey.

Carapaz has spent his whole career making history for his nation, earning them an Olympic gold medal, a Grand Tour overall victory at the Giro d’Italia and a podium finish at the Tour de France. But in recent years, he has been plagued by fitness problems, and his form has tailed off. As recently as a few weeks, it seemed very unlikely we’d see the best of the 31-year-old as he pulled out of the Tour de Suisse having sustained injuries in a crash. 

Yet on the San Luca climb during stage two, he surprised everyone by being right up there with the top favourites for the yellow jersey. He held onto Remco Evenepoel’s (Soudal–Quick-Step) wheel for dear life as the Belgian closed the gap to Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike) and the four riders ended the day with the same time on GC, Pogačar (somewhat unwillingly) taking the yellow jersey on countback based on having higher finishes across both stages. 

Though he still harbours long-term ambitions for a high GC finish, Carapaz differs from the other three in that wearing the yellow jersey is a short-term goal in and of itself, and he and his EF Education-EasyPost team set about trying to take it in today’s stage. As they were on the same time, all the Ecuadorian had to take yellow was finish enough places above Pogačar in the peloton when they arrived together at the line. Consequently, his teammates kept him in the mix for the sprint finish, while the other three sat up and held back, and he joined in the sprint to place fourteenth. Ben Healy even sprinted ahead of a relaxed Pogačar at the line to make sure, but ultimately he needn’t have — Carapaz had done enough to take yellow.

The question now is how long can Carapaz hold on to the jersey for? He’s very unlikely to still have it after Friday’s individual time trial, given Pogačar, Vingegaard and Evenepoel are all vastly superior to him against the clock, but if he can survive tomorrow’s brief visit to the Alps, then he should have straightforward flat days on stages five and six to enjoy. 

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Keeping the jersey on a stage as difficult as stage four, however, which features the Galibier as the last of three Alpine summits, will be no easy task. “For tomorrow’s stage it is going to be really hard,” admitted Carapaz at the finish today, “but we are going to do our best to defend this yellow jersey success.” To do so, Carapaz is going to need good legs, and his EF Education-EasyPost team will have to ride a tactically smart race. From being one of the peloton’s chief animators, always looking to attack and trying to win from breakaways, tomorrow they will need to change course and control the race by riding defensively. 

It’s in the team’s interest for the stage to be as subdued as possible, and the GC race neutralised. The margins could not be finer, with Pogačar, Vingegaard and Evenepoel all still on the same time, a mere second could be enough to see the yellow jersey change hands. For Carapaz to keep the jersey, he has to be with them all at the finish. And not only that, he can’t afford to allow them any bonus seconds either. That might mean that EF Education-EasyPost will allow a breakaway to get up the road rather than see the stage win contested for by the GC group and therefore bonus points come into play — although they will still have to be very careful to martial who gets in the breakaway, and make sure no threats to the yellow jersey from further down the classification sneak into.

Whether or not Carapaz will be successful may depend above all on what Tadej Pogačar wants to do. His attacking instincts were on full display on stage two, when he launched an explosive move on the second ascent of the San Luca climb, and Carapaz and all the other GC contenders will likely be looking at him to ignite the action. And if there’s one thing we know about Pogačar, it’s that he loves to attack. 

But, will the way Vingegaard so comfortably (and somewhat unexpectedly, given his questionable fitness going into the race) managed to mark his move discourage the Slovenian from trying another? An attack on the Galibier would, after all, be a big commitment, seeing as there is a 20km descent to the finish in Valloire. And having burnt up so much energy at last year’s race before being sucker punched by the Dane in the final week, he may be more reluctant to do too much. We can expect to see him deploy his super-star UAE Team Emirates teammates to set a rapid pace up the Galibier to test Vingegaard’s legs, but a similarly explosive attack may not be forthcoming. 

Image by James Startt

Based on how he performed on Sunday, we can expect Carapaz to be able to handle whatever pace they set on the Galibier. He was one of only seven riders able to stay in the group of favourites led by Adam Yates (UAE Team Emirates) on the San Luca yesterday, along with Yates’ teammate Pogačar, Vingegaard, his Visma-Lease a Bike teammate Matteo Jorgensen, Evenepoel, Enric Mas (Movistar) and Max Van Gils (Lotto Dstny). That was our first glimpse of a GC hierarchy forming, with the likes of Primož Roglič and his Red Bull-Bora-Hansgrohe teammates Jai Hindley and Aleksandr Vlasov, plus other contenders such as Simon Yates (Jayco-Alula), and the Ineos Grenadiers trio of Carlos Rodríguez, Egan Bernal and Tom Pidcock, all dropped in a group behind before regrouping on the descent. 

Before we jump to any conclusions about where the GC is heading, it needs to be remembered that the San Luca was, despite being steep enough to cause gaps, only a 2km climb. Ultimately, the GC will more than anything be decided on long mountains like the Galibier — and so we are likely to have a much clearer picture of which riders will be in this year’s GC fight by the end of tomorrow’s stage.

*Cover image by James Startt

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