We’ve seen this rodeo before. Simon Yates looks firmly in control of the leader’s jersey. There are only two mountain stages left to go. And then, he collapses.
“Of the stages left, this was the one we were most afraid of,” Yates said Wednesday. “I know the Andorra stages extremely well, and they suit me better.”
Yates defended his lead Wednesday in stage 17 on a brutally steep summit finale at Balcón de Bizkaia, but lost a few precious seconds to archrival Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and the ever-improving Enric Mas (Quick-Step). Was it a blow to his morale to get dropped by direct rivals? The ice-cool Yates wasn’t giving anything away.
“There’s no shame in losing a few seconds to Alejandro [Valverde] and Mas. They are both very classy riders,” Yates said. “I felt good and I truly believe Andorra stages much better for me.”
Yet this Vuelta is eerily stacking up like the Giro. Consider this: At the Giro, Yates led second-place Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) by 28 seconds with two mountain stages to go. Valverde trimmed Yates’s lead to 25 seconds with two mountain stages to go. Sound familiar?
Yates was sounding equally as confident in May as he was after Wednesday’s stage in Spain’s rugged Basque Country. There was a sense that the wheels were coming off the wagon in May, however. Yates struggled when Dumoulin and eventual winner attacked Chris Froome (Sky) in the final kilometer of Prato Nevoso and Yates lost 27 seconds to the pair in little more than 1,000 meters of asphalt on what was a power climb.
On Wednesday, Yates seemed more in control on the steeper, explosive Balcón de Bizkaia. Though he lost time to Valverde, there wasn’t the sense that there was blood in the water. His brother Adam was covering the moves and other key rivals were getting dropped, including Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who lost nearly a minute each. In fact, Yates gained time on all of his rivals except Valverde and Mas, who slotted into third at 1:22 back.
“It was a bit of a stalemate,” Yates said. “At 750m to go, Alejandro opened up his sprint and that’s where the gaps were created.”
Movistar riders might be quietly rubbing their hands in glee, however. Valverde keeps surprising in this Vuelta and with his losses Wednesday, Quintana could emerge as a disruptive factor that could turn this Vuelta upside down.
Could Movistar be secretly plotting another “Froomigal” raid that caught out Chris Froome and Team Sky in 2016?
In that year’s Vuelta, pre-race favorite Froome was surprised early in a short mountain stage in the Spanish Pyrénées. Movistar got help from Alberto Contador and other stage-hunters on the road to Formigal to open up an early insurmountable gap. Froome lost 2:37 to Quintana that day, a margin that helped Colombian fend off Froome in the final week that included an individual time trial.
Of all the teams in this Vuelta, Movistar has the experience and depth to try to take it to Yates in the closing two mountain stages.
Following Thursday’s sprint stage, Friday’s stage 19 is mostly flat until the final run-up to the Cat. 1 La Rabassa summit. It’s Saturday’s six-climb, 98km penultimate stage that could serve up a nightmare scenario for Yates and Mitchelton-Scott. Quintana is all but sure to try to attack early, putting pressure on Yates to follow.
“There are still small differences, but there can be bigger differences real fast,” Valverde said. “We knew something could happen today, coming after the rest day and the time trial. Nairo lost a bit of time, and we haven’t spoken yet, but it’s obvious that the team will be riding for me.”
In May, Froome returned the favor, with Yates on the receiving end of the Finestre ambush at the Giro.
The dynamics were different, with Froome starting the stage more than three minutes back. He attacked solo against the entire peloton over the Finestre and rode 80km alone to upturn the Giro. Just like in May and in the 2016 Vuelta, well-executed raids can turn the script for a three-week tour on its head.
Speaking to VeloNews last week, Yates said there is a big difference between the Giro in May and this Vuelta. He said that he attacked often and early in the Giro to try to gain time against Froome and Dumoulin ahead of the stage 16 time trial. Yates went too deep in that time trial to defend the pink jersey and later imploded in the closing days in Italy.
“I wanted a big buffer [in the Giro] so we could control the race afterwards,” Yates said. “Of course that fell apart anyway and that doesn’t matter. This is a completely different race.”
So far, Yates said he hasn’t had to go as deep in this Vuelta as he did at the Giro, and is quietly confident he will have the legs to fend off Movistar and others in Andorra.
“My legs were very similar [in the time trial] and my numbers were slightly better that day,” Yates said referring to the Giro time trial. “I still have to confirm that, of course, further in the race.”
Another key factor in Yates’s corner will be his twin brother, Adam. So far, it seems like he’s been on a two-week cycling tour of Spain while his brother wears red. Mitchelton-Scott finally pulled out its “secret weapon,” as Simon called him, on Wednesday. Adam was tamping down the attacks until the final meters to the line. If Adam can help pace Simon and cover the attacks in Andorra, Yates will have a much better chance of hanging on.
“We expect aggressive, attacking racing from Valverde and Movistar,” Yates said. “I don’t think he knows any other way to ride and he has a very strong team around him.”
As he learned in the Giro, however, it’s not always the nearest rider on GC who can present the biggest danger. Riders such as Mas, Miguel Ángel López (Astana), Quintana, and Kruijswijk are still lurking within two minutes.
“I don’t think it’s a two-rider race,” Yates said. “There are lot of hard stages, including Andorra, and gaps are still small behind. You can never count anybody out of the race.”
Intent on making up for his implosion in May, a wary Yates will be doing everything possible to avoid being the rider who collapsed twice in one season.