UP CLOSE: ENRIC MAS
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
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"
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”