Touted by Al­berto Con­ta­dor as a rider who could shape an en­tire era of Span­ish cy­cling, En­ric Mas has duly stepped up with a break­through per­for­mance at the Vuelta a Es­paña. Pro­cy­cling looks at the fast rise of a young star

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer: Alas­dair Fother­ing­ham Im­age: Chris Auld

The 23-year-old was the sur­prise run­ner-up at the Vuelta. Pro­cy­cling finds out why Mas could be Spain’s next big stage racer

Al­berto Con­ta­dor was asked in last year’s Vuelta a Es­paña which young Span­ish rider was likely to carry the torch for his coun­try’s sport af­ter he re­tired. “I don’t like to put peo­ple un­der pres­sure, but if I had to say a name, I’d say En­ric Mas. He could shape an en­tire era of Span­ish cy­cling,” Con­ta­dor replied. “He’s the per­fect rider for three week rac­ing - young, a feath­er­weight build, and a strong time tri­al­list. He’s got good bike-han­dling skills and he’s able to re­cover well.”

Long be­fore Con­ta­dor named Mas as his po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor, the links be­tween the 23-year-old Ma­jorca-born rider and Con­ta­dor, 14 years his se­nior, were al­ready well-pub­li­cised, not least be­cause

Mas had spent three years rac­ing very suc­cess­fully in Con­ta­dor’s Cy­cling Foun­da­tion. Then in 2015, hav­ing just turned 20, Mas was the only Foun­da­tion rider in­vited to visit Con­ta­dor’s Tinkof­fSaxo train­ing camp, and de­spite us­ing bor­rowed equip­ment af­ter the air­line com­pany man­aged to lose his suit­case and bike, Mas still man­aged to cre­ate an ex­cel­lent im­pres­sion.

From then on, it was al­most in­evitable that the me­dia would home in on the Al­berto-En­ric con­nec­tion, rang­ing from ob­vi­ous par­al­lels, such as both be­ing gifted clim­bers, through their mu­tual predilec­tion for ag­gres­sive rac­ing, to more bizarre sim­i­lar­i­ties, such as their be­ing the same height. There were other co­in­ci­den­tal con­nec­tions, like when Mas was one of the last rid­ers to ac­com­pany Con­ta­dor on the Angliru be­fore he van­ished into the mist and rain for his fi­nal ca­reer win. Here, one TV re­porter solemnly pro­nounced, were the coun­try’s cy­cling fu­ture and its soon-to-be-past to­gether on Spain’s hard­est climb.

As if this weren’t enough to link the griz­zled vet­eran and the fresh-faced young re­cruit in the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion, this Septem­ber, a now re­tired Con­ta­dor was stand­ing at the foot of the Vuelta’s podium to greet the Quick-Step Floors rider. Need­less to say, Mas’s se­cond place over­all had al­lowed mul­ti­ple me­dia re­work­ings of Con­ta­dor’s pre­dic­tion of fu­ture great­ness.

It’s not just in Spain that Mas’s se­cond place in the Vuelta, his se­cond grand tour, has caused a huge im­pres­sion. When team-mate Elia Vi­viani was asked af­ter his fi­nal stage win what he thought of Mas, the Ital­ian rat­tled off a five-minute salvo of unadul­ter­ated ad­mi­ra­tion.

“He has the class to win a grand tour,” Vi­viani en­thused. “I’ve been team-mates [at Sky] with G [Thomas] and Froomey and I’ve seen how hard they work, and I know how hard En­ric does too. Peo­ple say that

“He’s the per­fect rider for three week rac­ing - young, a feath­er­weight build, and a strong time tri­al­list"

Al­berto Con­ta­dor

he’s the next Al­berto Con­ta­dor, but I don’t think so. He’s En­ric Mas. But he’s made a re­ally good start to fol­low Al­berto’s ca­reer. This guy at­tacked in An­dorra like it was the first day of the moun­tains.”

In Spain, Mas’s role as the her­ald of a new gen­er­a­tion of grand tour rac­ers could not have been more timely, given Con­ta­dor’s re­tire­ment has cre­ated such an enor­mous vac­uum that lo­cal me­dia and fans have been cast­ing around for a pos­si­ble sub­sti­tute. Mikel Landa’s dif­fi­cult 2018 sea­son has only made that search more ur­gent.

Frus­trated fans were ini­tially de­lighted to see that the ever re­li­able Ale­jan­dro Valverde seemed to be en route to his umpteenth Vuelta podium, or maybe more, as the man from Mur­cia be­gan the Pyre­nees just 25 sec­onds down on leader Si­mon Yates. But on stage 19, Valverde faded away, and al­ter­na­tives like Jon Iza­girre showed their lim­i­ta­tions. Even Mas slipped off the pro­vi­sional podium in ben­e­fit of Steven Krui­jswijk.

How­ever, Mas told re­porters that he would “sleep eas­ier in fourth than in third”, mean­ing he now had noth­ing to lose the next day on the fi­nal moun­tain show­down. It was a pre­mo­ni­tion that proved right, and on stage 20, af­ter that good night’s sleep, Mas was ini­tally the only rider who could fol­low Yates’s at­tack with 17km to go, as the race leader chased down Nairo Quin­tana and Miguel Án­gel López. Once the catch was made, Mas and López took off up the race’s fi­nal climb, the Coll de la Gal­lina, and stayed away to the line. The pair rode them­selves onto the podium, be­fore Mas beat López for his first grand tour stage win.

“The last week of the Vuelta, ev­ery night I’d watch the video of how Valverde had won on the Gal­lina in 2012,” Mas tells Pro­cy­cling.” I saw that Ale­jan­dro had won it by get­ting into that last cor­ner first, and when I reached the same cor­ner with López, I knew I ab­so­lutely had to do that.”

When it came to spar­ring with Valverde di­rectly, Mas punched above his weight. On stage 17’s Bal­con de Bizkaia, Mas was not only able to stick with Valverde

when ‘el Bala’ un­leashed his strong­est weapon, his last-minute up­hill ac­cel­er­a­tion, he fin­ished just ahead. Then in the Tor­relavega time trial, while Valverde slumped to 15th, Mas came home 32 sec­onds faster, in sixth. “Peo­ple say I’m a climber who can turn out a pretty de­cent time trial, and I think that sums me up,” says Mas. “But I’m go­ing to spend a good part of this win­ter work­ing with my TT bike. I have a long way to go yet.”

Mas, so far, has struck an in­de­pen­dent path to suc­cess - grow­ing up in Mal­lorca, where there are plenty of for­eign bike rid­ers but the lo­cal am­a­teur scene is rel­a­tively scant, had a lot to do with that. And so, too, did Mas’s own in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic na­ture. “I started rid­ing a bike be­cause a friend had one, I said I wanted to try it and it worked out well. I must have been 12 or so,” he says. “But af­ter­wards,

I didn’t train with any­body or go see the pro­fes­sion­als when they raced or trained here. I did it all by my­self.”

Mas’s soli­tary path con­tin­ued into his teens, but through no de­sire of his own. “When I was a ju­nior, maybe from 13, I’d fly over to the main­land al­most ev­ery week­end. I’d go all over the coun­try on my own,” Mas told Cy­clingnews this spring.

“My par­ents would drive me to the air­port and some­times I’d come back with a tro­phy, some­times I wouldn’t. But it was all good ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “Most of my clubs would pay my air­fares, but we weren’t badly off, so my par­ents would fill in any short­fall.” Yet more of­ten than not, as the teenager wended through the crush of Ger­man and Bri­tish cy­clo-tourists at Palma air­port, there’d be a new ad­di­tion for his par­ents’ liv­ing room dis­play cab­i­net perched on top of his lug­gage.

Di­rect cy­cling con­nec­tions in the fam­ily were lim­ited. The most en­thu­si­as­tic fan had been his grand­fa­ther, a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Mal­lorca’s on­ce­flour­ish­ing track scene who would bet on the rid­ers, but he died be­fore Mas got

to know him well. Mas’s cousin, Toni Colom, is a former pro, but it was only later, af­ter cross­ing paths in a cy­cling academy in Mal­lorca and Colom be­came his trainer, that they saw each other more fre­quently.

Mas sparked the in­ter­est of Caja Ru­ral and Euskaltel when he won the ju­nior na­tional time trial ti­tle in 2012 but when Fran Con­ta­dor ap­proached him to sign in 2013 with his brother’s Foun­da­tion, Mas found him­self head­ing to Madrid.

“It was a nat­u­ral step,” says Jac­into Vi­darte, Con­ta­dor’s press of­fi­cer, who pre­vi­ously worked closely with the Foun­da­tion. “Of­ten top rid­ers from An­dalu­cia or the Balearics end up at the Foun­da­tion. Apart from what it of­fers in it­self, which is a lot, the Foun­da­tion gives them a base much closer to the big am­a­teur races in north­ern Spain.”

In 2016 Mas moved onto Klein Con­stan­tia, the now-de­funct Con­ti­nen­tal feeder squad for Quick-Step Floors. “I didn’t re­ally have much choice. Cy­cling in Spain was not go­ing so well,” Mas says.

The move abroad worked out well. When the team dis­solved, Mas’s 2016 vic­to­ries in the Tour of the Alen­tejo and the Tour des Pays de Savoie, plus se­cond in the Valle d’Aosta race, com­prised rock- solid ar­gu­ments for Quick Step to of­fer him his first World­Tour con­tract.

Mo­vis­tar tried to sign him, but Mas turned down their of­fer be­cause of their al­ready high num­bers of GC rid­ers. In Quick Step-Floors, that was hardly the case. Com­plet­ing his first grand tour at the Vuelta last year with Quick-Step was one ob­vi­ous mile­stone. But be­hind the scenes Mas also ben­e­fited from ex­po­sure to a cy­cling cul­ture that is very dif­fer­ent to Spain’s, giv­ing him some rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent ref­er­ence points.

He ea­gerly soaks up race knowl­edge when­ever he can, and is de­ter­mined to learn. Af­ter ev­ery stage of the Vuelta this year, he would get onto the team bus and re­watch the race footage, to see where he went right or wrong. Simi­al­rly, his room­mate, Dane Michael Mørkøv who is a decade his se­nior, helped pro­vide sup­port when needed. “That was great, he gave me loads of ad­vice and sup­port. Michael’s raced with Al­berto, he knows what it’s like to live through a grand tour,” Mas says. “Ev­ery night Michael would tell me how the team were re­ally im­pressed with me and that eased a lot of the pres­sure, be­cause the Vuelta GC was com­pletely un­known ter­ri­tory for me.”

As this was Mas’s first GC bid, he was given lim­ited sup­port by Quick-Step as they in­stead fo­cussed on sprint stages with Vi­viani. But it seem­ingly mat­tered lit­tle, as the Spa­niard took what­ever the Vuelta threw at him. “I could have done bet­ter with an ex­tra rider in the moun­tains,” Mas, whose best climb­ing sup­port was Lau­rens de Plus, who aban­doned on stage 19, says. “But the team has been phe­nom­e­nal, I never felt any pres­sure.”

In the end, Mas only suf­fered badly on stage 9 when he had a fever and shipped 50 sec­onds. From then on, bar­ring that one glitch at La Rabassa on stage 19, Mas steadily re­couped his losses, fi­nally reach­ing his ceil­ing as he raised his arms in tri­umph on the Coll de la Gal­lina, 24 hours be­fore the race fin­ish in Madrid.

So where now? Ac­cord­ing to Con­ta­dor, Mas was not happy that he did not get se­lected for the Tour this sum­mer, and Mas made it very clear in his fi­nal Vuelta press con­fer­ence that he wants to head to France next July. But Mas is keen, too, to stay with Quick-Step, rather than risk los­ing his own way in an­other team with es­tab­lished GC lead­ers.

As for the Con­ta­dor com­par­isons, he is not ir­ri­tated by them, ei­ther. “To be hon­est, no.” he told Marca.“I un­der­stand it. I al­ways an­swer the same, that Al­berto was Al­berto and I’m En­ric. We’re dif­fer­ent. Although if I could able to do half of what he did, I’d be happy.”

It re­mains to be seen if, with an ex­pec­tant Span­ish fan­base study­ing his ev­ery move, Con­ta­dor’s nom­i­nated po­ten­tial suc­ces­sor will ul­ti­mately out­strip the orig­i­nal ver­sion. But af­ter the 2018 Vuelta, Span­ish fans - and Con­ta­dor fans - have ev­ery right to hope.

“I could have done bet­ter with an ex­tra rider in the moun­tains, but the team has been phe­nom­e­nal, I never felt any pres­sure”

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