Rookie Evenepoel climbs into Vuelta lead through fog

PICO JANO: Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel outpaced his Vuelta a Espana title rival on Thursday in a misty climb in the Cantabrian Mountains on a stage won by Australian Jay Vine of Alpecin.

Stage six left Bilbao for a 181.2km run through the Picos de Europa, where rain and fog curtailed any daring descents after a downhill descent within a breakaway gave the peloton a strong reminder of safety.

Visibly delighted, Vine was an unexpected winner, revealing his team had carefully planned the attack.

“It was the team plan that I attack on the last climb, it’s unreal,” said the 26-year-old from Townsville. “This is for my wife,” he said, before quickly adding that he was buying a Corvette for himself.

But Evenepoel was the star of the day in the first major clash between the title rivals.

Often referred to as the new Eddy Merckx, Evenepoel leads the standings by 21 seconds over Rudy Molard, while Movistar’s Spanish rider Enric Mas is third by 28 seconds.

Evenepoel’s teammate Julian Alaphilippe led the peloton both up and down the penultimate climb before unleashing his young protégé on the final.

A sustained acceleration from Evenepoel on the misty slopes of Pico Jano dropped Simon Yates, Richard Carapaz and Primoz Roglic, but with visibility limited to a few meters at the summit, he couldn’t quite close the gap with Vine, who was pinning them with gain 15sec.

“I’m really happy and proud. It’s a big dream coming true,” said Evenepoel, who was traded for the top three years ago but fell into a ravine in Italy.

“What I’m showing today is one of the best things I’ve actually done on a motorcycle. Finishing uphill and showing a strong performance thanks to the team is a dream come true. I hope we can continue like this,” he said.

Roglic of Jumbo, pre-race favourite, finished the final 12.6km climb 1min 22s behind 22-year-old Evenepoel (Quick-Step), who also collected bonus seconds.

“There’s still a long way to go but today we lost a bit. (The others) are going strong but I didn’t need that proof. Pretty difficult weather for the Vuelta.”

Three-time defending champion Roglic is fourth at 1min 01s, while Ineos pairing Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart lie at 1min 27s.

Friday’s stage seven is a moderate mountain run from Camargo to Cisternia, but on Saturday and Sunday the Vuelta leads into two crucial mountain stages.

A free Monday will be followed by a lengthy individual time trial which, on paper at least, Evenepoel should once again punish his rivals before the Vuelta plunges into the sweltering south.