Vuelta a Espana
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Movistar and Mitchelton squabble over who controls Vuelta

GC leader Yates won't sacrifice his team on Vuelta's longest stage, and that doesn't sit well with Valverde and Quintana.

LUINTRA, Spain (VN) — A tense game of chicken played out in the longest stage of the Vuelta a España when a dangerous breakaway pulled clear Wednesday and no one in the main bunch wanted to pull.

Movistar finally took up the chase when red jersey team Mitchelton-Scott wasn’t pressing after Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) rode into the virtual leader’s jersey midway through the hilly, 207.8km stage 11 across Spain’s rugged Galicia.

Simon Yates ended up keeping the red leader’s jersey but it was only because Movistar piled on to trim a three-minute-plus lead the breakaway built up.

Alejandro Valverde, who remained second at one second back, had some sharps words at the finish line.

“We worked to control the break because to let Pinot get back closer in the GC was a danger. We saved the day,” Valverde said. “Mitchelton-Scott never pulls because it’s not part of their philosophy. Now everyone has seen it. They want to win for free.”

This Vuelta remains wide open and no single team has emerged as the clear favorites. With everyone waiting for a trio of important climbing stages this weekend in Asturias, the peloton is looking to Movistar to control the race.

Movistar brings pre-race favorite Nairo Quintana and the strongest squad to the Vuelta. And since Movistar is racing on home roads, the peloton expects Movistar to do the heavy lifting in these transition stages while the GC remains wide open.

Quintana was equally terse, saying this at the line: “Maybe others prefer to ride on the wheel. We have our responsibilities.”

Yates took the red jersey almost by accident Sunday on La Covatilla and continues to play it coy. Yates doesn’t want to burden his mixed team of veterans and younger riders with too much responsibility too early.

“Movistar chased because they have to,” Yates said. “We don’t have enough guys to control the race for over 100km.”

He also had the advantage of a teammate in the breakaway, Jack Haig.

Yates said Tuesday he would let the red jersey ride away if there was an opportunity, and Pinot must have been paying attention.

The Frenchman rode into the day’s main breakaway in a stage that saw a bitter battle in the opening two hours of racing. Breakaway attempts opened up and were reeled in as teams and riders jockeyed to get into the break before something finally stuck.

When the gap started to dangerously grow and it was obvious Mitchelton-Scott wasn’t going to pull, Movistar had to pull rank. It sent Andrey Amador and Imanol Erviti to the front to set the pace. Under pressure, Pinot’s advantage started to shrink. The Frenchman finished 10th on the stage, just 12 seconds ahead of the chasing bunch led by Valverde. Pinot ended the day where he started — 16th overall — at 2:20 back.

“Of course [Pinot] is a danger. We closed it down several times before he got away. We cannot control it all day and we had to take some risks sometimes, and that was the risk we took,” Yates said. “I am looking forward to getting into the real mountains to test my legs and my form.”

The irony is that Pinot said he wasn’t really chasing the GC.

“It was a crazy stage. It didn’t work out, but at least I tried,” Pinot said. “It was a tactical game. A game of poker. I wanted the stage win. That was always the objective. It’s fun to race like that. We’ll see later on the GC.”

Tempers should calm down Thursday for what is expected to be another opportunity for the sprinters ahead of the looming climbs. The chase will be up to Bora-Hansgrohe and Quick-Step.