2018 Vuelta a Espana
Fighting fire with fire on the only high-altitude finish of the race, Mitchelton-Scott’s Yates responded to an early move by Colombia’s Nairo Quintana and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk by using his local knowledge and strong legs to ride clear of an elite chase group and never look back.
Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot, already a winner on the legendary Lagos de Covadonga on Sunday, had joined Quintana (Movistar) and Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) earlier on the 17km-long climb before Yates clinically, emphatically, rolled the dice.
Once 26-year-old Yates joined the leaders, Quintana was soon called back to help his ailing team-mate Alejandro Valverde after Movistar’s bullish tactics in the 154.4km stage from Lleida backfired dramatically.
The in-form Pinot took another well-earned win, dancing clear of Yates with 200 metres remaining to secure the fifth French win of the 73rd edition of the Vuelta and rise to seventh place in the general classification.
But another imperious ride in red saw Yates take second place, five seconds down, to draw a line under his spectacular collapse in the Giro d’Italia – where he imploded on the corresponding nineteenth stage while leading the race and looking destined to win a maiden Grand Tour crown.
The battling Kruijswijk came home 13 seconds down to move back onto the virtual podium, while Valverde could only take eighth place, 1’12” in arrears, after being tailed off by a chasing group of Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb).
Yates now leads Spanish veteran Valverde by 1’38” ahead of Saturday’s final mountain showdown, with Kruijswijk in third place a further 20 seconds back. Spanish youngster Mas dropped to fourth at 2’15” while the Colombian Lopez is fifth at 2’29”.
A super-fast pace from the outset meant it took until 40-odd kilometres of false flat before three riders finally managed to extricate themselves from the Movistar-led peloton.
Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Eritrean Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Dimension Data) and the Australian Simon Clarke (Education First-Drapac) opened up a maximum gap of just over a minute. But with the peloton closing in, Stage 5 winner Clarke sat up and that rang the death-knell for the move.
There followed a flurry of activity as Stage 11 winner Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) combined with Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) in a short-lived counter-attack. Yet, once again, the fierce tempo dictated by Valverde’s Movistar gave the riders no leeway and soon things were back to square one.
With 85km remaining Tom Van Asbroeck (EF Education First), Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky) and Benjamin Thomas (Groupama-FDJ) led another attempt to break clear as the Pyrenees loomed on the horizon.
This time the peloton was happy to let the move stick – and although the Belgian Van Asbroeck soon sat up, Spaniard Castroviejo and the Frenchman Thomas managed to open up a maximum gap of two-and-a-half-minutes.
With 35km remaining, continued Movistar pressure forced a momentary split in the peloton – although Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott team were quick to close the gap.
The leading duo’s advantage was down to one minute as they crossed the frontier between Spain and Andorra with 20km remaining. Within three kilometres, at the start of the Cat.1 Coll de la Rabassa, the break came to an end after Movistar’s Winner Anacona set a brutal pace as the road ramped up.
Anacona was joined by fellow Colombian Quintana as Movistar looked to be paving the way for an ambush by Valverde, who trailed Yates by just 25 seconds going into the stage.
It was Quintana who put in the softening attack with 13km remaining, riding clear with LottoNL-Jumbo pair Kruijswijk and George Bennett in tow. The gap was small but the impact large: behind numerous riders were blown off the back as an elite chasing group was whittled down to around 20 riders.
Shortly after New Zealander Bennett peeled off, Pinot made his move from the pack. The Frenchman quickly bridged over to Quintana and Kruijswijk before moving straight to the front to drive the pace.
Yates, a resident of Andorra, decided that the time was right to make his move. With 10km remaining he surged clear to join the leaders. Dutchman Kelderman attempted to bridge over but never managed to closed the gap and was eventually passed by many of the chasers.
Quintana was called back to help pace Valverde with 8.5km remaining – a job made all the more difficult by a rear puncture which required a mechanical stop with 6.5km to go.
Meanwhile, Yates drove the pace on the front of the leading trio, the British rider opting for the big ring on the gentle 6.6% average gradient of a climb he knew well through training.
Lopez, Uran and Mas all tried to chase back on, while Valverde was merely holding on. Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Ag2R-La Mondiale), who had attacked earlier in pursuit of Kelderman, was caught and passed, while Quintana tailed off near the summit.
Kruijswijk also felt the pinch, the flame-haired Dutchman bring distanced by his fellow leaders before Pinot outmanoeuvred Yates in the closing moments to secure the second win of his race.
“It is the icing on the cake,” 28-year-old Pinot said. “I didn’t think that I would do it. I wasn’t feeling good on Wednesday but I found my legs again. It was a beautiful stage and I just wanted to have fun and give it a try. I really wanted to attack early.”
Asked if he was surprised to see Yates attack so early to join him on the front, Pinot said: “I was. I think he knows the climb really well, so he knew exactly where to go and he knew what he was doing. He saw that Alejandro Valverde wasn’t that good so it was a good moment for him to attack.”
Yates, indeed, emerged the true winner of the day, adding over a minute to his lead and putting one arm in the red jersey he hopes to don on the streets of Madrid on Sunday. Hold his own on Saturday’s crucial stage and Yates could make history by becoming the third British rider to win a Grand Tour this year.
Tomorrow’s stage takes the riders 97.3km from Escaldes-Engordany to Coll de la Gallina.
Six categorised climbs in less than 100km pepper this second stage in Andorra, which could well go down as one for the ages. Did Yates put in too much of an effort on Friday? Do Movistar have more cards up their sleeves? Can Kruijswijk, Mas or Lopez pull something out of the bag? All these questions will be answered on what should be a thrilling conclusion to La Vuelta.