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# Rider Name (Country) Team Result

1 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott 82:05:58

2 Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors 0:01:46

3 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:02:04

4 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo 0:02:54

5 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:04:28

6 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ 0:05:57

7 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale 0:06:07

8 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:06:51

9 Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida 0:11:09

10 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:11:11

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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  10/1/2018

Simon Says...the Future is Now

Simon Yates won the 2018 Vuelta a España, with Enric Mas second at 1:46 and Miguel Angel Lopez third at 2:04. If you have been canoeing in Northern Ontario for the past month, with no cell reception, you might see those results and say, “Who?” Or even, “WTF?!”

Not exactly household names, at least not before this stage race. But the Veulta has a way of producing results that will raise a few eyebrows or get a few heads scratched. Perhaps it’s because all the best teams with all the best riders have fired off all their biggest guns in the Giro and Tour and then send B-list teams to the final Grand Tour of the season. This is not always the case but it does seem that way occasionally. Think of Juan José Cobo—who?—winner in 2011 (just a whisker ahead of a young Chris Froome) or 41-year old Chris Horner in 2013 (just a whisker ahead of Vincenzo Nibali). The title of my report on that 2011 Cobo-Froome tussle was New Kids on the Block, which would have made a good title for this year’s report if I hadn’t used it already. The event does seem to be a good launching pad for blossoming careers. Vincenzo Nibali won his first Grand Tour here in 2010, for another example of a rising star making his big breakout at the Vuelta.

Simon Yates - 2018 Vuelta Winner
Cutting right to the summary at the top here, that’s going to be my takeaway from this Vuelta: we are seeing new talents emerging while at the same time seeing some of the perennial “heads of state” of recent years appearing to be fading into the sunsets of their careers. Watching this race unfold, stage by stage, it felt as if we were witnessing the turning of a page in the annals of the sport. I’ll say a bit more about that at the end, but hold that thought for now.

There was plenty of what might be considered A-list talent assembled for this event: riders who have been on podiums at big races in recent years. Vincenzo Nibali, Richie Porte, Thibaut Pinot, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Rigoberto Uran, Ilnur Zakarin, Stephen Kruijswijk, Fabio Aru, as well as another half-dozen who, on paper at least, showed potential for big things. Granted, no Chris Froome and no Tom Dumoulin and no Geraint Thomas, collectively the winners of the past five Grand Tours. No Mikel Landa and no Romain Bardet. But still, a good line-up.

Yates (Michelton-Scott) has been almost there for a couple of years now, showing flashes of brilliance—mostly as an explosive climber—but somehow always managing to miss the brass ring when it mattered most. He had this year’s Giro in a stranglehold…until he didn’t. His comprehensive meltdown on Stage 19 saw him lose almost 40 minutes and end up 44th overall. That was pretty much the defining moment of his young career—and not a good one—until now. 

Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) has shown great promise since turning pro in 2016. That year he won the Tour de Suisse and Milano-Torino…very impressive for a rookie. Last year he won four stages, including two in the Vuelta, but had no overall stage race wins. His best result was 8th at the Vuelta. This year, prior to the Vuelta, three stage wins and five podiums: two 2nds and two 3rds at one-week stage races and—most significantly—3rd overall at the Giro. So far in his relatively short career, he had won the Best Young Rider jersey at no less than seven stage races.

Enric Mas (Quick-Step) is almost a rookie, having turned pro last year. In 2017 he finished 1st overall twice and 2nd overall twice in four minor stage races. This year his only significant finish was a 4th overall at the Tour de Suisse until this brilliant Vuelta. As an indicator of possible good things ahead, in his first two years as a pro, he has won five Best Young Rider jerseys in those assorted stage races.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we can now say the major players at this year’s Vuelta were the top five in the final standings: Yates, Mas, Lopez, Kruijswijk, and Valverde. Pinot, Uran, and Quintana rounded out the top eight but never really looked like they could get on the podium. Pinot did win two stages but that was at least partly because he was far enough down on time that he was allowed to escape without being too closely marked. Valverde won two early stages—both uphill sprints—and looked great doing it. But neither gained him any significant time.

No single powerhouse team dominated the race this year, the way Team Sky has done so often lately. With Michal Kwiatkowski as their best rider, they really did not have a dog in the fight and didn’t expend a lot of energy at the front. No other team stepped up to fill that role, so loads of big breakaways were allowed to run free, resulting in battles for stage wins among a host of more-or-less no-name riders, with some of those no-names ending up in the leader’s jersey for several days at a stretch. Meanwhile, the real GC contenders were scrapping with each other well back off the lead…races within races.

In that race within the race, Yates and Valverde were the early leaders, always within a few seconds of each other while the breakaways and sprinters enjoyed their time in the sun. Yates took the overall lead on Stage 9 but lost it on Stage 12 when, after another big breakaway went clear, a minor pretender was installed on the throne for a few days. He got the lead back (for good) on Stage 14, winning the steep, uphill finish just ahead of Lopez and Valverde. That left Valverde 2nd at :20 and Quintana 3rd at :25. Over the three weeks, Yates never really dominated. He never threw down one of those monster attacks that brings everyone else to their knees. It was more of a nibbled-to-death-by-ducks victory. A few seconds here, a few more there, and bit by bit, a little cushion is accumulated.

Stage 16 was the only full time trial of the Vuelta. As had been the case at the Giro, Yates did better than expected. While he’s no godzilla in the ITTs, perhaps it’s time to recognize that they are not going to be a real liability for him either. Of all his chief rivals, only Kruijswijk and Mas were ahead of him. Quintana, Pinot, Uran, and Lopez all lost significant time. Valverde hung in there, just behind Yates. That left the overall in this order: Yates, Valverde, Kruijswijk, Quintana, Mas, Lopez, all still within about a minute and a half…all still with a chance.

It stayed that way until Stage 19. There, most of the top group finished together—Pinot winning with Yates right on his wheel—but the two Movistar riders, Valverde and Quintana, cracked a little. Valverde remained in 2nd but his gap to Yates expanded from :25 to 1:38. Quintana dropped to 6th and effectively out of any hope for a podium, let alone a win. Mas and Lopez moved up to 4th and 5th. It got worse for Movistar’s stars on Stage 20, the last of the big mountain finishes…the last real stage before the promenade into Madrid. Mas and Lopez attacked near the end and dropped everyone, even Yates. Mas won, with Lopez close behind. Yates rode a controlled race within his own comfort zone, knowing how much time he could allow them. He didn’t crack. He just let them do their thing and kept an eye on them. He conceded :23 to them but that left him with plenty of time in hand to ride into Madrid in first place the next day. 

It was not such a controlled concession for others. Kruijswijk lost enough time to fall off the podium, dropping from 3rd to 4th, as both Mas and Lopez leapfrogged him. It was worse for Valverde. He faded badly and lost 3:09, slipping from 2nd to 5th. The team asked Quintana to help him but there was nothing either of them could do. They finished together, looking thoroughly worn out. Quintana ended up 8th.

It was over these last two stages that we saw the changing of the guard: the fading away of the old war horses and the emergence of some new, youthful energy. Mas and Lopez and of course Yates all looked strong and fresh at the end, while the older guys looked whipped. Earlier in the race, other members of the old guard had shown their vulnerability: Nibali, Porte, Aru. Now Valverde and Quintana and Uran were joining the ranks of the also-rans. Mind you, all three finished in the top ten…not too shabby. But they weren’t any of them duking it out for a win by the end of the three-week race.

I’m not predicting all of these guys are done with big results. Pinot, Porte, and Kruijswijk will probably still be contenders in the years ahead, although all of them seem to have an uncanny knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. As for the others? Barring some Lazarus-like rebirth, I can’t see them stepping onto too many more Grand Tour podiums in the future, let alone donning any leader’s jerseys. Individual stage wins or wins in one-day classics? Maybe. Not much more.

Instead, I think it’s time to look at the new guys, the young guns. Yates is 26…not quite an infant, but still ramping up, for sure. Lopez is 24 and Mas is only 23. Lopez still has problems in the time trials. He’s not terrible but he needs to get better. Mas—at least based on this small sampling of his work—can climb like an angel and time trial pretty well too. He appears to be the next big thing. They’re calling him the next Alberto Contador in Spain. Yates is a big thing already. And while we’re talking about next big things, let’s not overlook Egan Bernal (Sky) who won the Amgen Tour of California as a rookie. He suffered a bad crash at the Classica San Sebastian and missed the Vuelta. But he has a world of potential and is on a good team. He’s only 21.

But what will happen when the new kids go head to head with Froome and Dumoulin and Thomas, with Landa and Bardet? We will have to wait until next year to find out.

British riders have now won the last five Grand Tours in a row and a total of nine in recent memory. Seems like not that long ago riders from that country were about as irrelevant on the racing scene as US riders are now. They were always dominant on the track or in time trials but had no serious GC contenders. My, how all that has changed.

No predictions for next year but the landscape at the sharp end of the peloton does seem to be changing.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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