He's been heralded as the next Alberto Contador but Enric Mas isn't in the business of standing in anyone's shadow. The 23-year-old Spaniard is dreaming big and as he tells Cyclingnews, he's nothing but his own man.
Hailing from Mallorca, Mas graduated through one of the island's top sporting academies and regularly made trips to the mainland as a junior rider. On weekends his parents would deliver him to Palma's main airport with just a bike, a bag of kit and an encouraging pat on the back to see him off. Mas would return that same night, his kit bag and bike slightly grubbier than when he left but more often than not, a shiny trophy resting atop is bike bag for when he parents arrived to take him home.
"My first race was a time trial and I won. It was like a junior Vuelta that was spread over three weekends in Valencia and I finished second overall," Mas tells Cyclingnews.
"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. My parents would drive me to the airport and then when I'd arrive I'd have to get to races on my own with my bike. Sometimes I'd come back with a trophy, sometimes I wouldn't but it was all good experience."
Such a level of independence certainly helped shape Mas into being the self-governing thinker that he is today. Assured, yet quietly humble, he admits that he expected more from his debut season at WorldTour, despite a string of promising results and a Vuelta a Espana debut that saw him put in a sterling ride on the road to the Angliru. Unlike the majority of promising Spanish riders, Mas also chose to ride for QuickStep's feeder team in 2016 instead of opting for a perhaps more comfortable ride on a domestic team. As one of just two Spanish riders on the Czech-registered Klein Constantia team, Mas was able to develop his language skills, learn from other cultures, and immerse himself in a multi-national environment. It was a move that helped ease the transition into Quick-Step's bilingual set-up.
"They gave me the opportunity to pass through into the Continental programme," he says of his development.
"When I had some good results they put a contract on the table. Then before the Vuelta they gave me another contract. This team feels like a family."
Quick-Step's decision to offer a new contract to Mas during his debut campaign is proof of their trust in him as a future star. His 2016 season had seen him win the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc ahead of Team Sky's Tao Geoghegan Hart and narrowly finish second to BMC Racing's Kilian Frankiny at the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, but 2017 was even more impressive even if it didn't result in a direct win.
Before the Vuelta, Mas had raced consistently through the spring, picking up a number of decent placings. Second place at the Vuelta a Burgos in August behind Mikel Landa but ahead of David de la Cruz and Miguel Angel Lopez was enough to see Quick-Step offer him an additional season on their books.
"For me, it was a really nice season and I learned a lot. I had some good results but honestly, I expected more," Mas says. "This year, if I'm good, then I want to try and do more on GC in races. It wasn't that I was disappointed with last year, but I thought that I could do more."
Despite an injury-hit winter - he cut his leg and needed seven stitches after an accident playing with his dog – Mas has started the season with a top-20 finish at the Tour Down Under. The next phase of his season will be focused on week-long races, while the Vuelta a Espana has also been pencilled in. He has until then to show his development in short stage races before the inevitable questions comparing him to Contador begin to stir once more.
"I'm training really hard with the team and maybe I can do something like him but it's going to be really difficult," Mas says.
"Honestly I don't know what to say when people compare me to Contador, and say I'm the next star of Spanish cycling. It's really good but it leaves me without words. When I was around 10 I was watching Contador win his first Tour and I've grown up watching him. He's the rider you want to be like and there are some little similarities but I want to be the first Enric Mas, not the next Alberto Contador."
Surely the comparisons lead to undue pressure?
"I don't feel pressure for the future," Mas says.
"I'll just try and do good races for the people watching television at home. I want to win big races but I want to give people at home watching something to enjoy.
"Races like Catalunya and Pais Vasco, we'll see what happens there this year, but I want to try and go for GC in all the week-long races that I race. There's still lots of room to develop but we'll see what happens this year. The dream is to win a Grand Tour but the next step is the week-long races."