As the temperature regularly reaches the high 30s at the Vuelta a España this week, Mitchelton-Scott’s management are quietly satisfied that Simon Yates' past issues handling very hot weather are no longer such a potential handicap.
Yates has had his problems in the past with hot weather. But this time around, even as the temperatures rocketed in southern and eastern Andalucia in the early stages – and once again in Murcia later in the week – Yates was handling it well. The Briton even attacked on the Vuelta’s first summit finish in the Alto de Alfacar despite the stiflingly hot weather, but Mitchelton-Scott are, on the whole, looking to race conservatively until deeper into the race.
Julian Dean, Mitchelton-Scott’s lead sports director on the race, agreed when Cyclingnews asked if Yates has indeed overcome his issues with the heat.
"He has," Dean told Cyclingnews earlier this week. "It’s been something he’s been working on, spending a lot of time working in hot conditions, training in hot environment, and the team have been working on what works for them [Simon and Adam Yates – ed.] in terms of rehydration strategies and different bits and pieces.
"We’re still refining the process, there’s still work to do, but it’s certainly better than they did previously."
Bradley Wiggins, prior to finishing third overall in the Vuelta 2011, made headlines in Spain for revealing that his heat acclimatisation programme for the race’s long grind through the baking hot deserts of Andalucia that year was to work on the rollers inside his garden shed with a heater set at full blast next to him.
Mitchelton-Scott have not adopted that particular 'marginal gain' with their British GC contender for Spain, instead sending him to altitude training camps in places like Sierra Nevada during the build-up to the Vuelta start.
"He’s been down here in [the province of] Granada, training on the climbs and in the valleys to get used to the heat and that’s been one of the elements,” Dean said.
Yates came through the furnace-like temperatures on stage 2 to El Caminito del Rey, possibly the hottest day so far, without any problems. Then, as the afternoon sun blasted down during stage 4 on the climb of Alfacar, Yates showed himself to be one of the strongest GC contenders, tearing up the script and going on the attack despite team plans to race cautiously.
Although Yates came close to the red leader’s jersey, he missed it by 10 seconds. Some pundits argued that this was a great result, as the Briton recovered all the time loss of the opening time trial and stage but did not take the top spot overall at a point when it could have resulted in excessive early pressure.
Dean points out one drawback, however – now that everybody knows how well Yates is going, the Briton will face extra vigilance from his rivals. On the other hand, his time gains were not minor and in the psychological GC battle, there were some useful points scored as well.
"I probably would have preferred that he didn’t draw so much attention to himself, we knew he was going strongly, but the advantage was that he didn’t take 10 seconds or 12, he took 27 on the favourites. It was a good chunk of time and hopefully that’ll be good for his confidence," Dean argued.
"So we’ll now get to the Covatilla in a few days’ time and that’ll be the next big sort-out. Even then, though, it’s a bit like dipping our toe in the water there, given what’s coming up in the second and third weeks, when there’s a heck of a lot going on."
Dean said that racing more conservatively – or trying to, at least – with Simon Yates was justified in part because of his difficult final segment of the Giro d’Italia this May, after an amazingly strong start. But, Dean underlined, only in part.
"It really comes as a combination of factors. There’s the style of this race, too, the heat of the early stages is another reason and the fact it’s late in the season. Plus we are trying to learn from our previous experiences with Simon and Adam. It’s not just one factor that’s encouraged us to do that, although the Giro is in there," Dean said.
Yates has said that he is tackling the Vuelta a España in a very different way to the Giro in terms of his approach path to his second Grand Tour of the season. But rather than the amount of races he did beforehand, say, or the kind of training, Dean says the change is one of mentality.
"It’s not so much in terms of preparation, but with Adam and Simon it’s about changing their way of thinking. They’re very explosive and they want to make a difference to GC right here right now, which is good, and you don’t want them to lose that," Dean said. "It’s more about the mindset they have coming into the race."
For now, in any case, Simon Yates remains in fourth overall, as the countdown to Covatilla continues. The climb, curiously enough, is where Wiggins and a certain Chris Froome took command of the GC in the Vuelta a España in 2011. Seven years on this Sunday, can Yates follow in their wheel tracks?