In the Vuelta’s penultimate stage and on its last real day of racing, fresh legs of the peloton’s new generation carried the day.
Enric Mas (Quick-Step), 23, and 24-year-old Miguel Angel López (Astana) nudged their elders off the bottom two rungs on the Vuelta podium in a wild day across the Andorran Pyrénées.
Mas and López climbed from fourth and fifth, respectively, to push Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) off the final podium with only Sunday’s romp around Madrid left to go.
It was a coming of age for Mas, who also won the stage to live up to his billing as Spain’s next big thing.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Mas said. “I saw Yates attacking and I went with him. I had the legs and Yates and I had a good understanding. We got up to López … and I finished it off. I am young. I really enjoyed this Vuelta.”
López’s Astana tried to blow up the race in the 98km, six-climb queen stage across Andorra to close out the Vuelta’s final major GC battle. Mas and Yates answered on the final climb, and while López missed out on the stage win, he notched his second third-place of the year to go along with third at the Giro d’Italia in May to confirm his status as a GC contender for the future.
Standing tall was Yates, who showed no signs of cracking like he did in May at the Giro when he tumbled out of the pink jersey in the closing two days in the mountains.
In Friday’s stage, Yates electrified the race to drop Valverde and his other GC rivals to tighten his grip on red. On Saturday, he once again raced with cool nerves as Astana and López tried to blow apart the race. He countered on the final climb to drop the main GC group, and eventually rode in behind Mas and López to secure what — barring disaster — will be his first grand tour victory Sunday.
“I think it’s sinking in,” Yates told journalists. “I’m incredibly proud and incredibly proud of the team. They carried me through the entire three weeks. It’s the first [grand tour] for the team.”
If Yates wins the Vuelta, it marks a UK sweep of the 2018 grand tours and five-straight grand tour victories, going back to the 2017 Tour de France. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) is the only non-UK rider to win a grand tour in the past two years.
Sky’s Chris Froome won the 2017 Tour de France and Vuelta and won the Giro in May in dramatic fashion. Compatriot Geraint Thomas (Sky) won the Tour in July and Yates coolly finished off the UK grand slam in Spain.
If Yates’s victory confirmed a generational shift at this Vuelta, the closing weekend collapse by Movistar will be hard to take for the Spanish team.
The Spanish super-team came into this Vuelta as the top favorites, but Nairo Quintana struggled last weekend in three stages across northern Spain. Valverde stepped up and pedaled within 25 seconds of Yates coming into this weekend’s finale in Andorra.
Valverde, 38, showed signs of fatigue and could not answer Yates’s aggressive attacks on stage 20. A winner in 2009, Valverde dropped from second to fifth and will ride into Madrid with the green points jersey.
“You have to be happy when you give everything you have,” Valverde said. “I don’t know if it was a bad day or if I am just empty. I was at the front this entire Vuelta. Next up are the worlds.”
It was bittersweet for Kruijswijk as well, who started Saturday in third overall. After riding on and off podium range since the Vuelta began, the Dutchman couldn’t follow the spicy attacks from Yates and Mas on the final climb to slot into fourth.
Weary legs from the Tour de France also played a factor. Quintana, Valverde, and Kruijswijk all raced the Tour while no one on this Vuelta podium raced in July.
“It’s a pity to finish just outside the podium,” said Kruijsijk, who slotted into fourth. “I gave my best but they were just stronger than me today.”
The titillating racing over the final half of the Vuelta helped revive what was a moribund race in the first half as sweltering temperatures and a relatively flat parcours meant riders were saving their matches for the final weeks.
Early hopes by Team Sky to defend the Vuelta even without defending champion Froome faded when Michal Kwiatowski, who took an early lead, crashed in the second week. Co-captain David de la Cruz struggled last weekend and will ride into Madrid in 15th.
Yates was most consistent over three weeks and takes a well-deserved victory. The 26-year-old confirms not only his GC future but the bet that the GreenEdge franchise placed on morphing the team into a GC-focused group two years ago. With Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves also lined up, Mitchelton-Scott could be the team with the most firepower to take on Team Sky in the looming battles of 2019.
This Vuelta will present a crisis moment of sorts for Movistar, which did not finish on a grand tour podium all season.
The Spanish team was fourth with Richard Carapaz at the Giro, but Quintana struggled at both the Tour and Vuelta, and was not a podium factor with 10th at the Tour and ninth at the Vuelta. Mikel Landa overcame a crash to finish seventh at the Tour, but a heavy fall in August kept him out of the Vuelta. Valverde was never expected to be the team’s GC leader yet rose to the occasion to take fifth at the Vuelta.
Movistar’s much-hyped three-pronged attack lost much of its edge. Valverde will try to salvage the season with a run at the rainbow jersey later this month in Austria.