The favourites lists ahead of this year’s Vuelta a Espana were long and varied. It’s fair to say the name of Enric Mas did not appear on many of them. Yet the 23-year-old Spaniard nailed a career-best result in only his second Grand Tour. How the hell did he manage that?
In Enric Mas’ two years with the Quick-Step team, he’s been quietly getting strong results, especially in young rider classifications at stage races. That he grabbed that podium spot at the Vuelta as part of a team with sprint stage goals says as much about his strength as it does his smarts.
Mas is the only rider this year to podium at a Grand Tour without a team totally devoted to the GC. That in itself should be a big warning sign to his rivals in races to come.
But other factors played right into his hands.Embed from Getty Images
Before the Vuelta, Mas had raced just 48 days this year, less than all the other top ten riders except Thibaut Pinot, Rigoberto Uran and Wilco Kelderman (who’d all suffered illness and injury).
After taking part in the Tour de Suisse in June, Mas only raced three stages of the Tour de Wallonie in August before heading to the Vuelta. That’s a quiet summer. While he was metaphorically putting his feet up, many of the Vuelta contenders were at the Tour de France. Mas is one of only two riders in the Vuelta top ten not to compete in another Grand Tour this year.
It’s no coincidence that the Spaniard’s strongest ride came at the end of the Vuelta. As others faded, Mas kept his strength.
Enric Mas comes from Mallora so we can’t claim he was riding on the roads he grew up on but it does no harm racing in a country you understand with a climate you’re used to.
Plus, there’s the intangible benefit some riders get that makes them perform better on home soil. So far in his career, most of Mas’ best results have happened in Spanish races.
Part of a winning teamEmbed from Getty Images
Quick-Step has been the winningest of winning teams this season. It’s undeniable they’ve had an edge over every other outfit. That may come from training, tactics, diet, sports medicine or a combination of all that and more.
And winning brings is confidence, a quality Mas never lacked throughout the three-week race.
This Vuelta’s unusual dynamics
The 2018 Vuelta didn’t conform to the cookie cutter Grand Tour template we’ve seen recently. There were no outright favourites and the main contenders were all performing at the same level for most of the race. No one team was so strong that they could dictate the action day after day.
This led to a very tactical race with different teams having different ideas about how the race should play out. The ebb and flow of these tactics made the Vuelta an absorbing watch and created the perfect gap for Enric Mas to slide into.
While Simon Yates was watching Alejandro Valverde who had an eye on Steven Kruijswijk who kept close to Nairo Quintana who was afraid of Miguel Angel Lopez, Mas could sit back and stealthily keep an eye on them all.
Riding without any pressureEmbed from Getty Images
For all the main GC contenders, the Vuelta brought pressure. For some, it was the chance to win the Grand Tour they’d been expected to win most of their careers. For others, it was a chance to show they could still compete at the highest level and were not a spent force.
As a 23-year-old rider competing in only his second Grand Tour, Mas had no such external pressures. He could take part without expectations.
Mas went to the Vuelta as a teammate of Elia Viviani. It was the Italian sprinter that would have the pressure to perform and take the Quick-Step win count even higher. Viviani delivered and by the end of stage 10, Quick-Step could consider their Vuelta a success.
That success came on the back of so many race wins through the year for the Belgian squad, not to mention the King of the Mountains prize at the Tour de France.
So as well as a lack of external expectations, there was no pressure on Mas from his team. He didn’t need to get a result in Spain to save their season or his.
Without pressure, Mas was able to ride his own race free from worry. He never had to take into account the consequences of any decision he made. If they worked then brilliant, if they didn’t then he could stick it down to experience for next time.
RacecraftEmbed from Getty Images
The Mallorcan demonstrated a knack for not over-extending himself. Up until stage 20, he launched no flashy attacks or long-range gambles. Instead he held on to the favourites group and when that splintered he stayed where he felt most comfortable. That tactic took him into the top 5.
On stage 20, he finally took the chance on hitting out to secure that podium place and, smartly, went with Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana. Lopez had the same goal as Mas, to put time into Kruijswijk and Valverde and steal their places in the top 3. So when Mas did launch an attack, it was the right one.
Enric Mas is a huge talent, there is no doubt. If he stays on the same path he’ll be a major factor in Grand Tours over the coming years. At this Vuelta, a perfect storm gathered around him and allowed him to put in the kind of performance that announced his presence.
He’ll probably never get as lucky again. It’ll be interesting to watch and see how he copes.