Vuelta a Espana

GC stalemate testing favorites’ nerves

With 43 seconds between top four riders, the Vuelta has hit a stalemate, and the red jersey fight could go to the wire.

LAGOS DE COVADONGA, Spain (VN) — The Vuelta a España is still so close after two weeks of racing that even the protagonists are losing their nerves.

It’s a stalemate among the top contenders — only 43 seconds divide the first four on GC after stage 15 — and everyone is looking at each other to see who will make the first move or show the first cracks.

Case in point: Late on the misty slopes of the decisive Lagos de Covadonga climb Sunday, red jersey Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) waved his arm in exasperation to archrival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) to help take up the chase when Miguel Angel López (Astana) darted away. The pair exchanged words before Yates finally took matters into his own hands.

“There was no discussion, I was just asking why we are not working,” Yates explained. “Just zero cooperation — and that was it.”

The level is so equal that no one wants to attack and no one wants to chase — it’s that kind of Vuelta.

“After 15 days of racing, what we’ve seen is that between the top four or five riders, there isn’t much difference and they’re on the same level,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Yates, Lopez, Nairo and Alejandro, they are all right there at the same level. That’s the reality.”

There are some interesting dynamics stacking up that will alter the final week of the season’s third grand tour. On Sunday, Yates deftly expanded his lead to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to 26 seconds and 33 seconds to Quintana, so it’s still anyone’s race.

Three difficult back-to-back stages in the race’s second week saw a few GC contenders cede ground, such as Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac), Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb). Not discounting a few others, including the ever-steady Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the improving Enric Mas (Quick-Step), the Vuelta is morphing into a four-horse race.

On Sunday’s stage to Lagos de Covadonga, Astana took control of the peloton and drove hard to reel in the day’s breakaway to set up López for the win. The 23-year-old jumped near the top of the fearsome “La Huesera” sector, but the move was smothered by Yates and Quintana. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) came over the top to complete his sweep of stage victories in all three grand tours.

“The win slipped away from us again, but if we keep working like this it will come,” López said. “I don’t think I attacked too early. Sometimes you have to test your rivals. My team was working and everyone was a bit on the limit, so I said, ‘Let’s attack and see what happens.’ The most important thing is that we are still in the fight.”

Quintana and Valverde might be leading the powerful Movistar team, but it’s been Yates and López who have been trying to liven up the race so far. Despite looking strong Friday, Quintana isn’t showing the brilliance he’s had in previous editions of the Vuelta and was hesitant to jump on Sunday’s stage. Meanwhile, Valverde is doggedly hanging on.

“There was a lot of tension today, and between Yates and López, we are very equal,” Quintana said. “We got less than we were hoping for. We were all quite equal in the end. The most skilled got a few more seconds. We are still in the fight and we have good sensations.”

Adding another layer is the López-Quintana Colombian rivalry. López marked Quintana in Saturday’s explosive finale and on Sunday, Quintana was chasing down López’s early attacks. Quintana is Colombia’s king of the cycling hill, but López is elbowing in.

“There’s a big rivalry between the Colombians,” said Astana’s Pello Bilbao. “They get along well but there’s a lot of battles between them, and with Nairo [Quintana] they are two rivals who look at each other a lot.”

Yates is revealing newfound confidence and maturity during this Vuelta and is adroitly exploiting the openings. After racing aggressively early and often in the Giro d’Italia — in large part to try to distance Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin before the time trial stage — a different Yates is emerging in this Vuelta.

The Brit has been patiently attacking at the right moments to gain valuable seconds without wasting his reserves. With Tuesday’s time trial and three more hard days in the mountains in the final week, Yates knows it’s still a long way to Madrid.

“There was almost zero cooperation, it was difficult to do anything,” Yates said. “There was a little bit of headwind, so if you got a gap it was hard to maintain. So not much really happened in the end. I feel good and if I can hold the same form and the same legs, I will be very happy.”

Yates is slowly taking control of the Vuelta, but everyone seems to know that things can quickly unravel. After his Giro collapse, Yates isn’t looking too far ahead. López seems more intent on winning a stage right now rather than plotting some larger strategy to blow open the race. Valverde keeps shrugging off his GC chances. It’s Quintana who is the one who stubbornly is keeping faith.

“People look at Nairo more than others but we have to keep working,” said Movistar director José Luis Arrieta. “We’ve seen Nairo win the Giro and win the Vuelta when we’ve been in worse positions than this. If he has a good day, there’s nothing he can’t do.”

The next big challenge is Tuesday’s 32km time trial. None of the top protagonists are particularly good or bad against the clock, especially when compared to one another. So that means it’s very likely the loggerheads will continue straight into the final days of the Vuelta.