The Briton finds himself in an almost identical situation to a week ago, on the Vuelta’s first rest day. As was the case last Monday, Yates has the red jersey of race leader on his shoulders, with a narrow advantage over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Nairo Quintana (Movistar), meanwhile, is in third place, just as he was after the summit finish of La Covatilla.
But on scratching slightly beneath the surface, the differences quickly become clear. In week two of the Vuelta, with an advantage of just one second, Yates and Mitchelton-Scott took the decision to cede the lead to a rider who was not considered a GC threat, Jesus Herrada of Cofidis.
Fast forward a week, and Valverde is now hovering at 26 seconds – still very close, but not breathing down Yates’ neck nearly as closely as on the first rest day in Salamanca. Similarly, Quintana’s deficit is now 30 seconds.
More crucially, Quintana could not dent Yates’ hold on the lead on Sunday’s ascent to Lagos de Covadonga, the same climb where he wrenched the race into his power two years ago and kept the lead all the way to Madrid. In the mountains, Yates has on some days been a little superior to his rivals, on others slightly behind, but for now, he remains narrowly but firmly in control of the Vuelta with just six days to go to Madrid.
“I felt good [on the climbs], but the gaps are still small, the GC is really close, I’m not really dominating,” Yates said in an informal press conference outside his hotel in Santander. He could not, he said, pick out a particular rival as an outright favourite. “They are all really close, the differences are only a few seconds. That may continue, and the time trial may well be very important.”
With no clear differences established in the mountains, Tuesday’s 32-kilometre time trial takes on even greater significance than normal. Yates had yet to reconnoitre the course, but with his above-expectations performance in the 2018 Giro d’Italia’s chrono still close in his rear-view mirror, he appears quietly optimistic about his chances.
Asked if he can keep the lead, Yates said simply: “It depends [on] how my legs are going and how I go on the day, my rivals… A lot of us are also very close in the time trial.”
Yates identified Valverde – a former national time trial champion with a solid track record in Grand Tour time trials – as the man who could take most of an advantage in the time trial. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) also figure among the list of GC contenders Yates expects to shine in Torrelavega on Tuesday.
As for his own chances, Yates says he is “always confident in my own abilities. I think I have a great TT, everyone else disagrees. I’m slowly getting better. I will do my best.”
Yates’ build-up to the Vuelta had been conditioned by his upcoming participation the World Championships, which remain on his radar despite his stellar performance in the Spanish Grand Tour. Was he still thinking about the rainbow jersey while he raced in Spain or has he switched his focus purely to the Vuelta?
“Today I’m not thinking about the World Championships, they are still a long way away here but it’s really in the back of my mind,” he answered. “I really tried to progress my condition and my form here, rather than arriving here ready to go and you’ve seen that in my results and the stages. So things are looking good for now, but we’ll concentrate on this race first.”
Yates was succinct when asked to rate the importance of the three mountain stages that follow Tuesday’s time trial: “Every stage matters.” He does not know the finishing ascent to Balkon de Bizkaia on Wednesday, although he feels it will be very tough “as always in the Vuelta.” The same goes, of course, for the stages in Andorra, where Yates currently resides and trains regularly. “I know those roads very well. They are all hard and very important.”
Yates said that he is not trying to set the record straight after coming within sight of the overall victory of the Giro d’Italia then falling at what was nearly the final hurdle. “No, no, I did everything I could there and I finished empty, I couldn’t do more there, I did the best I could and that was that,” Yates said.
Mitchelton-Scott have been playing a much more conservative game with Simon Yates in this year’s Vuelta than they did in the Giro, and he admits that even though he has been told to ‘rein himself in’ at times on the climbs, it can be easier said than done. Team manager Matt White had to tell him to ease off the throttle, he said, “at least once every day.”
“It’s hard to do that when that’s been the way I’ve raced since I was a child. If you have the legs, normally and the opportunity is there, normally you have to take it. It’s very hard to change that mindset and be way more conservative. But here it’s been ok,” Yates said.
“Every now and then you get a little frustrated, because this is how I’ve been racing since I was 11 years old, which is a long time ago now. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” But overall, despite chomping at the bit occasionally, Yates insisted he was handling the more conservative racing style well.
Holding back he may be, but Yates was notably bullish about his overall condition compared to the Giro’s second rest day. “I feel really good, and if I go on feeling like this, I’ll be really happy,” he said.
If Yates were to win this Vuelta, it would be Britain’s third Grand Tour of the season, each with different riders, and the country’s fifth in a row since Chris Froome won the Tour de France back in 2017. But Yates was typically blunt when asked what such a feat would mean for British cycling.
“Nothing yet,” he said, “because We’re still a long way from that achievement, we’ve still got a hard week to come. I’ll try my best to try and win, but we’re a long way from that.”
Yates was equally cautious when discussing the idea that British cycling was dominating Grand Tour racing. “That’s a strong word, here in the GC the gaps are very small, lots of riders are close to me, I would not call that dominating,” he said.
As for his program after the Innsbruck Worlds, Yates said: “It depends how I come out of here and the Worlds. I’d like to go on until Lombardia, but if I win the Worlds then I’d end my season right there.”