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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

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