Vuelta a Espana
Simon Yates finished a few seconds behind some of...

Yates a surprise Vuelta leader after stage 9

Simon Yates is in red after the Vuelta's summit finish at La Covatilla

Is Simon Yates so strong right that he’s leading the Vuelta a España without really expecting it?

The Mitchelton-Scott rider was as surprised as anyone that he ended up in the red leader’s jersey Sunday at the top of the La Covatilla summit finale.

“It was not expected [to take the lead],” Yates said after stage 9. “I was trying to follow the best guys in the race. It’s a bit of a surprise, but I am happy — a good surprise.”

A week into the Vuelta a España, Yates finds himself back at the top of a grand tour leaderboard. Following his spectacular rise and fall at the Giro d’Italia this spring, Yates has ridden into the Vuelta as discreetly as possible. On Sunday, he nipped Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by one second to take the overall lead.

“I knew my condition was good before I arrived. It’s a similar preparation before the Giro. The numbers were good and the feeling was also good,” he said. “I was not expecting to be here today. I was just following the best guys. I don’t know what the plan is now.”

Yates’s arrival in red was certainly a surprise to Movistar. Overnight leader Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) faded as expected in the Vuelta’s first major mountaintop finale. The Frenchman fought bravely, but dipped to 17th at 2:43. Valverde was first in line to inherit the red jersey, but the veteran Spaniard — who has already won two stages in this Vuelta — surprisingly struggled a bit to follow the late-stage accelerations. Yates wasn’t exactly lighting up the climb either, losing some time to several GC rivals, but he gapped Valverde and took enough time on Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) to climb from fourth to first overall.

“I was a little on the limit in the final, but I knew how to respond well and limit the losses,” Valverde said. “Of course I would have liked to have taken the jersey, but what did we say at the beginning of the race? That Nairo [Quintana] is the leader and the most important thing is that he was at the front of the race.”

So what’s next for Yates? He said the team hadn’t even discussed the scenario of him ending up in red today.

“As for the game plan, I will have to sit down with the team to discuss what we do with the jersey the next few days,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s too early [to be in the lead]. We have the rest day to sit down to discuss what we can do.”

La Covatilla provided the first concrete look at who has the legs to win the Vuelta. Finishing ahead of Yates in the GC group were Quintana, Rigoberto Urán (EF-Drapac), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Miguel Ángel López (Astana), and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida). After strong pulls from grand tour rookie Sepp Kuss, George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) finished just behind.

The race is far from settled. Going into Monday’s first rest day, the hardest part of the race looms in the rugged mountains of northern Spain. There are 15 riders still within two minutes of Yates’s lead.

“There have only been two opportunities to really make a chance [on GC],” Yates said. “There’s not really been an opportunity to try something. There will be more chances that we will see a change in the GC. There is a lot to come.”

And what about that Giro collapse? Even that’s a mystery to Yates.

“It’s hard to say what I learned from the Giro because I don’t know what the reason for cracking was,” he said. “If I did, I would have learned a very valuable lesson. We don’t know yet. That’s OK. Every race is different.”

Yates is hoping the Vuelta certainly plays out differently than the Giro. In the Italian grand tour, he came out of the gate hot only to run out of gas three stages short of Rome. So far in this Vuelta, he’s been off the radar. It sounds like he would have liked to have stayed that way a few days longer.