FEATURE: SIMON YATES
Procycling analyses how the Briton got his tactics perfect to win a debut Vuelta a España
After dramatically conceding a hard- won race lead in the Giro d’Italia with just three days to go, Simon Yates and Mitchelton- Scott played a waiting game at the Vuelta. This time, the result was happily different for the Briton, as he took his first grand tour win
Blink and you’d have missed it. The moment Simon Yates arguably came closest to losing the Vuelta a España was not in any set-piece mountain battle, but 38km from the finish of stage 19, on a nondescript section of Spanish A road, when the route turned a corner and the tailwind switched to a crosswind. Movistar suddenly massed at the front, provoking an echelon, and Yates was adrift in the second group.
As it turned out, Bora-Hansgrohe and a motley alliance of other squads quickly combined to bring back the two segments of the peloton. In less than 10 minutes, the crisis was over. A Mitchelton-Scott video later showed Julian Dean and Matt White, the Mitchelton sports directors, in the team car, expressing their relief as the pressure lifted with much grinning, theatrical patting of heaving chests and some bleeped out f-words from Dean for good measure.
Yet the scare had been real. Had Movistar reached the foot of the final climb of the Col de la Rabassa and ridden flat-out up the ascent - which they did anyway - with Yates distanced, there would have been every chance of a repeat scenario of the Vuelta’s crunch day in 2016. That came when a different British favourite, Chris Froome, lost the race to a Movistar mass attack prior to another Pyrenean summit finish, Formigal.
Two years on, the road to Andorra also exposed the biggest chink in MitcheltonScott’s armour in the Vuelta. “We definitely didn’t have the strongest team here, we had to bluff our way through,” admitted Dean the following evening, as he stood by the side of the road a few hundred metres below the Col de la Gallina finish, high-fiving the team’s domestiques as they pedalled upwards in ones and twos, already celebrating their leaders’ victory.
“We had the strongest rider [Simon Yates], and we had guys coming into form at the right time, like Adam [Yates]. But we held them back at the start.”
Dave Brailsford once said that he would prefer to race a grand tour with a strong leader and a weak team, rather than the other way round. But ever since 2012, Sky’s grand tour best practice has been to steamroller the opposition out of existence with a succession of domestiques who could be leaders in any other squad. As for Froome’s attitude to the Vuelta lead in 2017 when he captured it by the bare minimum, he said, “I’m going to do everything to try and hold on to the jersey.” That steamroller
“We had the strongest rider, and we had guys coming into form at the right time, like Adam. But we held them back at the start” Julian Dean
approach wasn’t an option for Yates, even if he’d wanted to take it.
When it comes to how to contend in a grand tour as a strong, individual leader but without the team to back you up - as was the case for Yates - that clearly demands a certain degree of luck, like in the echelons of Andorra. But riders also need to able to adapt fast to different race circumstances, and, above all, have an ability to think outside the box. Happily for Mitchelton-Scott, that was the case.
Nowhere was that clearer than on the first day in Andorra on stage 19, in which Yates attacked 10km from the finish and set up his Vuelta victory.
“One of the thing you have to understand about Simon and Adam is that the way they do things is not conventional, and that’s why they’d never really fit into a Sky mode,” Dean said after stage 10. “But if you can manage that a little bit and give them a little bit of freedom, they can do things like they did yesterday.
“You’ve got to nurture that, and let it run. And it’s fantastic for the sport to see some real dynamic racing, too.”
Yet sometimes Yates’s racing style veered towards being too dynamic, even for Mitchelton-Scott. The clearest case was when the race reached its first major summit finish, the Alto de Alfacar on stage 4, and where Yates was the first of the GC riders to wrench open a gap. By going on the attack, Yates tore up the script that Mitchelton-Scott had set for him of racing conservatively in the first 10 days. “I got carried away,” Yates admitted later. “This wasn’t in the plan.”
On the plus side, Yates had regained a good chunk of time with his attack - 27 seconds. The Briton had also handled the hot temperatures of southern Spain far better than last year, when his attempt to repeat his breakthrough grand tour sixth place in 2016 melted in the 40-degreeplus temperatures. On the downside, by attacking, Yates had made it very clear how short a leash the rest of the peloton should keep him on - if they could.
What was truly haunting MitcheltonScott at the Vuelta, though, was the 2018 Giro d’Italia and how Yates had paid a high price there for not holding back on the early climbs. What had started as a fairytale success on the slopes of stage 6’s Mount Etna, with Yates and Esteban Chaves in the top two positions overall, disintegrated completely two weeks later on the Finestre.
So Mitchelton-Scott’s early strategy for Yates at the Vuelta was clear: conserve energy. Fly under the radar. Hold fire until the second half of the second week. Yates’s spontaneous attack on the ascent to Alfacar played havoc with these mantras. It led to some rather unexpected consequences, too: five days later, even when Yates followed team instructions to the letter, ignored his own instinct to attack and lost time on the bigger ascent of La Covatilla, he still had such an advantage on GC he became the Vuelta leader by one second over Alejandro Valverde. “It was a surprise,” said Yates. “But a good one.”
However, Yates’s attitude was not exactly one of holding on to the jersey for grim death,!à la Froome. Rather, he said, if another team took the lead in the short term, “It would also be okay.”
The good news for Mitchelton-Scott was that while they simply wanted to win the Vuelta, another top team all but!had!to win it. Not LottoNL-Jumbo, whose leader Steven Kruijswijk rode very consistently in Spain after a more than creditable fifth place in the Tour. Not Sky, either, given they had just won the Giro and Tour and whose Vuelta leader David de la Cruz never got on terms with the race. (The squad’s other leader, Micha¯ Kwiatkowski may have briefly led the Vuelta but crashes, injuries and general fatigue saw the Pole focus, unsuccessfully, on stage wins.)!Rather, the other key team in the Vuelta GC game was the thin blue line of Movistar.
This was only logical in some ways. As Spain’s only WorldTour squad, Movistar were bound to face high expectations in their biggest home race. In a country where grand tour racing dominates most fans’ imaginations, and for a squad with an amazing, if slightly ageing, track record, that pressure increased to extreme levels. Most importantly, Movistar badly needed some grand tour success because their muchvaunted triumvirate of Nairo Quintana, Valverde and Mikel Landa had given a rather dismal showing on the Tour de France general classification in July. the Vuelta. “Me, I’ll be as free as a bird,” was how Valverde described his role.
But of the two, it was Valverde who first showed top form by taking a stage win less than 24 hours after the race had started with a trademark acceleration up the slopes of Caminito del Rey near Malaga.
Valverde’s eagerness to stay in GC contention became clear when he went up the road in Alfacar, before dropping back to help a struggling Quintana. Such action meant the questions about who was leading Movistar multiplied. Yet Valverde, having got off to such a bright start, then seemed to be in more trouble than Quintana on the Covatilla summit finish on stage 9. However, who was still only a second behind Yates after the first rest day? Valverde. It was all very confusing.
The whole question of how Movistar should approach the Vuelta then became entangled with Mitchelton-Scott’s policy of leaving the red jersey up for grabs in the short term. On stage 11, the Australian team allowed a large break containing Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot to gain enough time that the Frenchman was the virtual leader on a road for a time.
This was possibly Mitchelton-Scott’s most pivotal gamble of the whole Vuelta. Because it lacked the firepower to pull back Pinot (and with Jack Haig acting as cover in the break) would Movistar, needing the race lead to remain within their grasp, pick up the chase? It did, and Yates was duly given a free ride to another day in la roja.
Valverde accused Mitchelton of never putting in hard graft when they had a lead to defend. Movistar’s director José Luis Arrieta later grumbled that his team had too much respect for the Vuelta “to allow a break go up the road and get 20 minutes.” On the other hand, nobody had put a gun to Movistar’s head and forced them to chase. Or as Yates put it, “They played their cards, and we played ours.”
What made doing Mitchelton-Scott an indirect favour look worse, were the doubts about Movistar’s ability, truly, to take the fight to Yates, which were steadily growing. Throughout a prolonged stalemate on GC over three supposedly crunch summit finish stages on the third weekend - Camperona, Praeres and the Lagos de Covadonga - Movistar only got worse. Quintana shook off Yates with a late acceleration at Camperona, but Yates hit back harder at Los Praeres, taking his first stage win – and the time bonus – to regain the psychological upper hand and the lead.
Movistar did not seem certain of their top rival, let alone their top leader. Even after Los Praeres, Movistar apparently
Even before the Vuelta started, things began to go awry for Movistar when Landa fractured a rib and vertebra at Clásica San Sebastián and was ruled out of the Vuelta. Nevertheless the leadership question, which has nagged at Movistar since they signed Landa, quickly arose. The problem was that 38-year-old Valverde had insisted initially that Quintana was in command at
Yates’s attitude was not exactly one of holding on to the jersey. If another team took the lead in the short term, it would also be okay
remained as worried about Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman as they were about Yates, in spite of the Dutchman losing two minutes after a puncture on stage 6 and flagging on some subsequent climbs.
At Covadonga on stage 15, Quintana was expected to put Yates to the sword as he had done with Froome two years ago. But by then it was all about damage limitation. The Colombian was forced to task Valverde with keeping the Briton and Astana’s Giro podium finisher Miguel Ángel López under as close control as possible. an extra layer of mountain support for Simon, just when physically - and, one suspects, psychologically, given the hangover from the Giro’s last-minute debacle - he might have needed it most.
Simon Yates now had a world-class climber at his disposal, and that became clear on the Rabassa on stage 19 where Adam did much of the hard work on the lower slopes for his brother. At the point when the Vuelta GC battle should have reached fever pitch, Mitchelton and Yates killed it off with one ferocious attack 10km from the summit of the Andorran climb. Bridging up to an earlier move by Kruijswijk and stage winner Pinot, Yates’s move finally gave him a respectable time cushion on the overall. While Valverde faded away for the first time since the race start in Malaga, Yates was now the first Vuelta leader with realistic GC hopes to have an advantage of more than a minute.
Like his opening gambit at Alfacar, Yates’s attack defied the conventional wisdom that a race leader conserves energy. But taking risks gave Yates exactly the kind of advantage he needed to handle the far more challenging and race-deciding stage 20, which featured six classified climbs in its 106 kilometres.
According to Spanish newspaper ElPaís, after Covadonga, Valverde was more convinced than ever he could win the Vuelta. Having failed to sink Yates in the mountains, the idea that Valverde and Movistar could do so in the Torrelavega time trial began to gain some traction.
But the Spaniard singularly failed – to the point that Yates gained seven seconds on Valverde in the individual test.
Valverde’s status as leader was then reinforced by the Spaniard slicing eight seconds off Yates’s advantage the next day on the Balcón de Bizkaia. The Briton’s advantage was a narrow 25 seconds as the race moved towards the Pyrenees.
Balcón de Bizkaia had also produced an almost invisible sea change in the GC battle as Adam Yates hit top form. The rise in strength of the other Yates twin provided
Taking risks gave Yates exactly the kind of advantage he needed to handle the far more challenging stage 20
Interestingly, this was no plan. Rather it was all off-the-cuff, spontaneous attacking – pure Yates, in other words. “Adam was actually pissed off because Simon hadn’t told him he would attack,” White said later. “Look, sometimes you have to make a decision on the road, and it turned out to be a very successful one.” The final Pyrenean stage was far from a formality, however, as Movistar and Astana threw everything they could at Yates. Movistar’s leaders were on the back foot and when López’s initial long bomb, with three climbs to go, failed to work, the Colombian’s second move closer to the line was shadowed by Enric Mas, the up-and-coming Spaniard who replaced Valverde on the podium, and Yates. Yates faded a little on the Collado de la Gallina, but by then overall victory was, to all intents and purposes, in the bag.
Overall, the Vuelta a España proved vastly entertaining, with the GC battle partly subsumed into a relentless series of daily battles for stage victories. No fewer than 10 non-GC related breakaways ended in stage wins, one more than the Giro and Tour’s combined total for 2018.
The French also had their best Vuelta in years. They took their first Vuelta lead since 2011 through Rudy Molard, and equalled Laurent Jalabert’s total of five stage wins en route to victory in 1995. Two were on summit finishes with Pinot, who has now taken stage wins in all three grand tours, and one, in a victory of massive personal importance given his tumultuous season, was taken by Cofidis’s Nacer Bouhanni.
For Mitchelton-Scott, there was pride both in winning their first grand tour since they launched in 2012, but also for being the first to end a run of four grand tour wins by Team Sky. On top of that, it confirmed Julian Dean’s theory about the Yates twins. “If you take the Sky model and the way they race, try and control everything, Simon and Adam would never fit into that.
“They want to attack and be dynamic in the way they race, and you can still race that way in the modern era as long as you use it in the right way and at the right time,” he said.
Apart from veteran outfits like QuickStep Floors adding another four grand tour stage wins to their bulging palmarès for the year, the 2018 Vuelta was also a showcase for relatively new names. The combined age of the Vuelta’s podium was just 73 - Yates (26), Mas (23) and López (24) - making it the youngest since the Vuelta’s second edition in 1936, when Belgium’s Gustaaf Deloor (22), his brother Alfons (24) and Antonio Bertola of Italy (22) totalled 68 years between them.
For Yates, he capped a year where British cyclists have won all three grand tours, but did so in a way that was very much his own style. Even a supposedly reined-in Yates still produced one of the most aggressive displays seen in recent years to win a grand tour. “When you’re more aggressive, and you’re attacking, you get that little bit of momentum, you have that bit of a jump, that bit of surprise, and it makes a big difference,” Yates said in his winner’s press conference. That attitude doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.
Movistar tried to control the race, but their leaders were unable to crack Yates
Things looked good for Valverde early on: he won two stages during the irst weekCo idis’s Jesús Herrada took the race lead for two days as Yates relinquished it
Jelle Wallays de ied the peloton on stage 18 to take one of the race’s 10 break wins
With Vuelta victory all but sewn up, Yates gets a hug of congratulations from his DS, Matt WhiteLópez and Mas blaze a trail up the Vuelta’s # inal summit # inish, the Collada de la Gallina