The 26-year-old British pounded his rivals into submission in two decisive climbing stages across Andorra to seal the deal.
Rather than race tentatively, Yates attacked and attacked again. Some wondered if he would blow up like he did in the Giro D’Italia in May, but for Yates, it’s better to attack than wait for the attacks.
“It’s a mindset thing,” Yates said. “When I find myself on the defensive, it’s quite hard, mentally, to react to people. But when you’re more aggressive, and you’re attacking, you get that little bit of momentum, you have that bit of a jump, that bit of surprise, and it makes a big difference.”
That aggressive, yet measured racing style helped push Yates toward his first grand tour victory.
Just a few months following his epic collapse at the Giro d’Italia, Yates will ride into Madrid triumphant after delivering consistent racing across three weeks.
Yates made no mistakes while his rivals faltered and tripped up in his wake.
Compared to the Giro, when he started red hot and flamed out in the third week, Yates was more tempered during this Vuelta with one eye on the final weekend in Andorra.
“There’s no real big secret to it,” he said. “It’s just about staying calm in the moment that calls for it, and not being too aggressive.
“I arrived at the [Vuelta’s] second rest day… I wouldn’t say fresh, but compared to how I was feeling in the Giro it was a different league,” he said. “I think that was where the difference was made. We made the right calls on the road when needed, not being too aggressive, that’s really all I think was the difference.”
It’s a remarkable achievement not only for Yates but his GreenEdge franchise. The Australian-backed team bet big on the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves a few years back, and it paid off handsomely this year.
Yates, who turned 26 last month, delivered on his grand tour promise this season.
Coming into 2018, he had twice punched into the top-10 in five previous grand tour starts, with sixth in the 2016 Vuelta and seventh in the 2017 Tour de France. That gave hints of potential but few saw him emerging this season as well as he did.
A strong and aggressive climber, Yates’s relative weakness is his ability against the clock. Though he is not that bad compared to other puncheurs at his level, he will lose big chunks of time against riders like Chris Froome (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). After those two riders knocked him back in May, neither raced this Vuelta. That opened the door for Yates to take his revenge in Spain.
Without a natural TT rider among the Vuelta favorites, that meant Yates could face this Vuelta with a different tactical approach.
At the Giro in May, he attacked every chance he could in order to gain an advantage that he knew he would later lose in the time trial. That effort finally backfired in the Giro and he faded out of contention in the final two mountain stages.
That Giro collapse was always in the back of Yates’s mind. In order to assure himself he could go the distance in this Vuelta, he raced a bit more conservatively in the first half of the race. When he unexpectedly took the red leader’s jersey at La Covatilla, he didn’t obsess about defending it too early.
Yates upped his game in the final half and came alive when it counted. He won stage 14 at Les Praeres to take control of the GC for good. Although Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) clawed back into contention, other top rivals faded.
“Even [Friday] I had a good ride but I truly didn’t believe I could pull it off, especially after what happened at the Giro,” Yates said. “I was nervous at the beginning [Saturday], because you just never know on a stage like [this] what could happen.”
Yates’s future is wide open. A four-month racing ban in 2016 for what was described by the UCI as a “non-intentional anti-doping violation” for using Terbutaline to treat asthma during the 2016 Paris-Nice without a required TUE meant Yates did not race the Tour that summer or compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Speaking about the ban during the Giro, Yates said, “Well, I’m always going to get this now regardless of what my performances say because obviously of what happened in the past with me. That was an innocent mistake by an innocent person that I will have to deal with for the rest of my career, and I knew that at the time. Yeah, there’s not really much else to say.”
Yates’s victory also completed a unique British sweep of grand tour racing this season. Three different British-licensed riders won all three grand tours — Froome the Giro, Geraint Thomas the Tour, and Yates the Vuelta — in what’s a first in cycling history.
Yates is a homegrown product of British cycling yet the first to win a grand tour beyond the Team Sky cycling structure. Bradley Wiggins, Thomas, and Froome all won their respective grand tours as part of the Sky juggernaut.
“As an organization we’ve really grown,” Yates said of his Mitchelton-Scott team. “Even this year from the Giro to here, it’s been a big change. Long may it continue.”
Yates isn’t speaking much about his future plans, though he said he does have some “unfinished business” with the Giro.