MANON, Spain (VN) — Movistar and Mitchelton-Scott played poker with the red leader’s Wednesday and were happy to let it ride away in Thursday’s transition stage across northern Spain. Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) won the day’s jackpot.
The top GC riders did the math and they hope they didn’t miscalculate as the Vuelta a España is poised to turn into three climbing stages that could well decide who wins in Madrid.
“We did what we needed to do today,” said Simon Yates, who happily stepped back into second at 3:22 back. “We didn’t want a day like yesterday when it was ‘filthy’ from the start for over half the stage. We decided to control it just as much as we needed to do.”
Thursday served up another rollicking stage across the steep green hills of northern Spain’s Galicia region. Many thought it might be one of the sprinters’ last chance before a string of ruthless climbing stages stacked up in the second half of the Vuelta, but a breakaway of nearly 20 riders pulled clear.
Herrada, a former Movistar rider, was best-placed among the group. The Spaniard started Thursday’s stage 12 22nd overall at 5:45. Neither Movistar nor Mitchelton-Scott saw the need to chase down the group. Herrada is an experienced pro who’s won stages and twice the Spanish national title, but he’s never finished in the top-30 of a grand tour.
Yates said they were aware and they didn’t want Herrada to get too much rope.
“Of course, he’s a very good rider. We knew that already, but there is still a long way to go,” Yates said. “We rode to try to keep it at a reasonable gap. We are looking forward to the race starting for real.”
A day after bickering about whom should take control of the peloton, Movistar and Mitchelton-Scott were both on the same page Thursday. Both teams wanted to save their matches for Friday’s La Camperona, the first of three straight summit finales lurking in the Cantabrian mountains of Asturias and Castilla y León.
“We are not too worried,” Quintana said of Herrada. “Cofidis is a team that will defend for as long as they can. For the main GC rivals, we didn’t have any problems today.”
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) maintained his one-second deficit to Yates, but the pressure is mounting on Quintana, who looks the strongest so far among the GC favorites. The Colombian didn’t seem fazed with the looming battle as he posed for photographs with fans waiting at the team bus and calmly chatted with journalists.
“These coming next three days will show us who can really fight for the overall classification. I hope to do be there,” Quintana said. “Mitchelton-Scott were the leaders and it was up to them to defend. We stepped in to help when the gap was getting bigger and we are OK with how it turned out today. I am feeling good right now.”
Many are overlooking Herrada, 28, but with a lead of 3:22, he might be able to defend the leader’s jersey for several days. Typically riding as a domestique at Movistar, his switch to Cofidis this season gave him more chances to win.
“I will try and defend it for as long as possible,” Herrada said. “I wanted to get more freedom than when I was at Movistar, to see where how far I could get.”
Grand tours have long seen scenarios where riders take a big lead early and can sometimes tip over the apple cart. In the 2010 Giro d’Italia, for example, David Arroyo rode away in the infamous Aquila breakaway that gained nearly 13 minutes on the GC favorites. Three days later he overtook the pink jersey from then neo-pro Richie Porte. Eventual winner Ivan Basso was forced to attack relentlessly to finally overtake Arroyo.
Everyone in the bunch is convinced Herrada’s head start coming into this weekend’s trio of climbing days won’t be too much.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Jack Haig, who raced alongside Yates in this year’s Giro, said the team put in enough pulls Thursday to keep Herrada at a reasonable gap.
“The gap is a good distance. It’s the right distance,” Haig said. “It will give the responsibility to Cofidis and it will give Simon a bit more recovery after the stages, not having the jersey, the media, and doping control that come with the jersey.”
Haig saw what happened at the Giro, when Yates attacked often and early only to implode in the closing mountain stages. The team is riding into this Vuelta with a different tactical mindset and don’t want to put Yates under too much pressure too early.
“Finishing with it on the last day is the ultimate goal, not having it midway through the race,” Haig said. “That is something we learned at the Giro. It was quite hard out there today. It wasn’t like we just sat there and said, ‘Let it go.’ There was a bit of a calculation, so if the breakaway had the right combination, we’d let it go.”
Yates was content to be back at the team bus early after Thursday’s stage. He was still wearing the red leader’s jersey under his rain cape but it was Herrada who was on the podium and heading to the post-stage protocol.
Yates hopes to be back up on the podium, but not for a few more days yet.
“[La Camperona] is very hard, much steeper than what it says in the book,” Yates said. “We’ll see how it goes. Maybe I will lose some more time tomorrow.”
With the top-10 still tightly knotted up — the stage started with first and 10th place separated by just 47 seconds — the Vuelta finally lurches into the steep climbs that have made the race so unpredictable and so entertaining. Expect Yates and Quintana to be sparring partners on the steep face of La Camperona on Friday.