The final mountain stage – six categorised climbs including an HC summit finish – and only two riders in the top 10 finished in the place they had started the race in. Yes, Stage 20 was the Vuelta’s version of musical chairs and it was a fitting end to a surprising, spicy and most of all well-fought Grand Tour.
Rider of the Race
Quick-Step’s Enric Mas has a good answer to those who say he’s the next Alberto Contador. ‘No, I am Enric Mas.’ And he showed himself to be an exciting, savvy rider who will be one to watch in the Grand Tours for years to come. This morning, he was sitting in fourth on GC. Tonight, he’s on the second step of the final podium (with the usual caveat of barring any … yada yada … in the processional sprint stage in Madrid).
How did he do it? He followed the leader. When Simon Yates attacked with 17km to go in this jiggidy-jaggedy stage, Mas was the only one to follow him, joining forces to put in a powerful ride to hunt down Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. Looking for the stage win, he also wanted to put time into Alejandro Valverde and Steven Kruijswijk – two riders who were in the way of that podium place.
Once on the final climb of the HC Coll de la Gollina, Lopez, Mas and Yates dropped Quintana and worked together to put the final kibosh on any Valverde attack plans. Not that the Spanish rider could have attacked even if he wanted to – the pace was too much and he started losing time hand over fist. Meanwhile, Mas and Lopez pulled away from Yates, who calmly rode his own race (eventually coming in 23sec behind the duo) about halfway through the climb. Kruijswijk – who was in the Valverde group – realised too late that his podium place was in jeopardy and although he made a valiant last-ditch effort to get some time back, Mas and Lopez were too strong and too far ahead for the plan to meet with success.
Under the flamme rouge, however, I was almost sure that Yates was going to catch the duo, as they cat-and-moused themselves all over the road, Mas coming to almost a track stand to push Lopez to take the front. To and fro, back and forth, then Mas kicked with a couple hundred metres to go, manhandled the crucial corner and was over the line before Lopez, for his first Grand Tour stage win.
But guess who Mas watched to find out when he needed to kick?
The last week, every day I looked at the video from when Valverde won here in 2012, and I was thinking I need to sprint before into the corner, and then the last 50m full gas. I did like this – I did full gas before the corner and then I went full, full, full.
Laying the ghosts of the Giro to rest
Implosion after looking so strong – Simon Yates was not going to let that happen on this Grand Tour. He stamped his authority on this race in the last week especially but he measured his effort today, knowing that to carry on riding with Mas and Lopez was not the wise option. Valverde was fading, Mas and Lopez weren’t even within spitting distance of the top step and he had nothing else to prove … it looked like he quite enjoyed those final solo kilometres. Chapeau.
Cycling can be a cruel mistress
The two big losers on the day were Alejandro Valverde and Steven Kruijswick – both losing their podium places. And while both are no doubt unbearably disappointed, their demeanor and attitude throughout this race mean that they are also probably taking the defeat with good grace. What is absolutely true is that both men helped animate the Vuelta throughout, each giving us some edge-of-our-seat viewing and kept the question marks poised over the final podium right up to the last tilt.
With the bad we have the good – and I think the performance of Thibaut Pinot was one of the best things about this Vuelta. After the heartbreaking (and worrying) scenes of him riding deliriously all over the road in the Giro, later diagnosed with pneumonia, he was a question mark in this race. But with two stage wins, a fourth place today and a solid 6th overall, he proved without a shadow of a doubt that he can ride in the heat, he can do himself proud on some of the steepest stages and he’s a thrilling rider to watch. Perhaps all along it’s been the razzle-dazzle of the Tour and the Herculean expectations on his shoulders to excel in the world’s biggest race that has been the problem …
1 Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) 2:59:30
2 Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) same time
3 Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) 0:23
4 Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) +0:54
5 Rigoberto Uran (EF-Drapac) +0:57
1 Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) 79:44:30
2 Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) +1:46
3 Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) +2:04
4 Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) +2:54
5 Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +1:38
6 Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) +5:57
7 Rigoberto Uran (EF-Drapac) +6:07
8 Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +6:51
9 Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) +11:09
10 Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) +11:11
All the jerseys
Leader’s jersey: Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Points jersey: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Climber’s jersey: Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal)
Combined jersey: Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Team classification: Movistar
Header image: ©GETTY/AFP/Ander Gillenea