Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is two mountain stages away from his first grand tour victory. He’s been in this position before, but this time, he’s confident the story will have a different ending.
Yates got through stage 18, which he called the easiest day so far in this wild Vuelta a España. With Friday’s and Saturday’s climbing stages in Andorra standing between him and Madrid, the Englishman is ready.
“We’re into the final part of the race,” Yates said. “I am not exactly fresh. If anybody is, something is wrong. I am looking forward to tomorrow.”
Yates and Co. got through Thursday’s sprint stage with no major hiccups. He’ll start Friday’s stage with a 25-second head start to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). The Spanish team promises to throw everything at Yates to see if he will crack like he did at the Giro d’Italia in May. With Nairo Quintana a bit further back, Movistar is poised to send attacks often and early to try to disrupt Yates.
“Who knows [what Quintana will do]? He could go early or he could stay for the final,” Yate said. “I don’t know. We’ll see. It will be difficult — we know that. they have a strong team not just those two but the entire time. It’s going to be hard. We’ll give it our best.”
Yates remains confident he can fend off a Movistar onslaught without forgetting other riders lurking in the overall GC.
Friday’s La Rabassa climb is the longest of this year’s Vuelta, but it’s one that Yates knows well. He lives and trains in Andorra and will be riding to defend his slender lead to Valverde.
Movistar is expected to pile on to at least have a chance to challenge for the stage win. With time bonuses at the line, Movistar will want to set up Valverde to sprint for finish-line bonuses.
Valverde pipped Yates in Wednesday’s uphill finale in Spain’s Basque Country to claw back eight seconds. Yates was nonplussed by Wednesday’s minor losses and expects to stand tall Friday.
“That’s what he’s the best at,” Yates shrugged. “There’s no shame at losing time to him in the finish. We’ll see how tomorrow goes now.”
In a race with such small differences, time bonuses could be a major factor. With 10-, 6-, and 4-second time bonuses waiting at the line, Valverde’s fast finishing speed will be another threat to Yates.
“Saturday is probably more dangerous. I think Movistar will want to control the break tomorrow so Alejandro can ride for the time bonuses,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “It’s a long climb tomorrow, but Saturday’s short stage — they can go either way — they can become very aggressive stages, or sometimes quite negative because they are so hard.”
Another factor will be rowdy Spanish fans cheering along Valverde, who is poised to win the Vuelta for a second time following his victory in 2009.
Andorra, of course, isn’t part of Spain, but could the nearly “home road” advantage be in Valverde’s favor?
“It is natural for the Spanish fans to want to see Alejandro win again. He’s been a great champion for nearly two decades now. And it’s going to be a great battle for the next couple of days,” White said. “Yates is not scared of anybody, but we also know that Alejandro is an incredible athlete. We do know with the gaps so small, with a time bonus, it could change this Vuelta.”
Movistar isn’t giving anything away, but it’s obvious that the team will have a strategy to try to blow up the Vuelta and put Valverde into the top podium spot in Madrid.
Quintana is a tad more than two minutes back, so that means the Colombian could play a major role in disrupting Mitchelton-Scott’s defensive strategy in the final two mountain stages.
Without looking past other rivals, including Enric Mas (Quick-Step), Miguel Angel López (Astana), and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Yates knows his first worry is keeping tabs on Movistar’s aggressive moves.
Mitchelton-Scott has its own secret weapon in the form of Adam Yates. The twin brother of the Vuelta leader was fourth overall in the 2016 Tour de France and has been keeping his powder dry for this weekend.
“That was the plan. At the end of the Tour de France, we spoke to Adam about being ready for the final week,” White said. “We knew this Vuelta would be decided in the last few days. So in the first half of the Vuelta, Adam was deliberating losing time and having as an easy as race as possible. We are going to be relying on him heavily in these next few days.”