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Ayuso believes GC is yet to be fully decided in Vuelta a España

Juan Ayuso at the Vuelta a Espana
Juan Ayuso at the Vuelta a Espana (Image credit: Getty Images)

After more than two weeks of racing in the Vuelta a España, Juan Ayuso’s remarkable progress in the event and as a rider shows no sign of ending soon, with the youngest rider in the Spanish Grand Tour in nearly half a century still currently lying a hugely impressive fourth overall.

The UAE Team Emirates rider struggled on the steeper slopes of La Pandera and Hazallanas over the past weekend but on both occasions he dug deep to remain in overall contention. 

On Saturday, he crossed the line in the same time as Vuelta leader Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) and then on Sunday, having clawed his way back to the favourites group with some sterling support from teammate João Almeida, was able to narrowly outpace the Belgian at the summit.

While a fraught spell of suffering from COVID-19 is now completely behind him, he said on Sunday, and a very difficult Basque Country stage is also fading in the rear mirror, Ayuso believes that the Vuelta will continue to be an unpredictable affair at the top of the classification from here to Madrid.

Asked directly on Monday’s rest day press conference if Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Enric Mas (Movistar) could still turn things around at the top of the GC regarding race leader Remco Evenepoel and if the GC could still change significantly, Ayuso stated directly about the second question, “Yes, it can.”

Arguing that the pace of the race is such that the longer the Vuelta goes on, the more likely it was the non-stop action could take its toll, Ayuso said. “On paper the third week is a bit easier, but ever since day one in Holland, we’ve been going flat out. We only had one day so far in the Vuelta, the stage to Cabo de Gata [stage 11] where things were a bit calmer.

“So maybe the route is not so decisive from this point onwards, but things can still change." Recurring to humour as he often does to make his point, he said jokingly, "I only hope my progress is upwards, not downwards!"

Ayuso also recognised that la Vuelta is the toughest experience he has ever had as a pro, saying, “I’ve never realised until now that you could get to the point in a race where it would even hurt just going down the stairs of the bus in the mornings before.” But with that in mind, being able to complete the race will, he said, put him in a very different place for 2023.

“That’s why I’ve come here, to experience that level of difficulty and to learn about staying cool and calm even when you are going through bad times,” he argued.  “Then I start the season next year, I’ll be able to move forward knowing that I can handle what I handled here.”

Ayuso had nothing but thanks for his teammate João Almeida and the Portuguese rider’s level of support for him during stages like Sierra Nevada. He even employed a very similar tactic to Almeida’s favoured strategy on the climbs when finding himself unable to stay the favourites, that of dropping back but gradually clawing his way back into contention. And on Sunday, Ayuso had Almeida there to support him, too.

“We’ve spent so much time together recently I’ve ended up learning to ride like him,” Ayuso joked. “No, seriously, I’ve learned so much from João not just in the race, but beforehand when we spent six weeks together at training camp in Andorra. So that’s two and a half months together now, give or take a week.”

“Being friends, you learn a lot, and from somebody who’s been at the top of the GCs for nearly three years now, even more so.”

Part of Ayuso’s learning curve at the Vuelta included accepting that other riders might be stronger at certain points of a steep ascent, “and that’s particularly tough when you can see that they are just up the road. But you stay at your own pace, and try to think that they will suffer later on. I knew it would be an hour’s effort at Sierra Nevada and you tackle that very differently to Les Praeres, say," on stage 9, “where it was much steeper but only 15 to 20 minutes.”

Ayuso has spent much of the Vuelta saying he will evaluate his performance on the day by day, but he refused to limit his ambitions to defending a fourth place all the way to Madrid. Nor did he specifically rule out going for a stage win, although a high GC placing appeared to take priority in the third week. 

“Obviously, I don’t want to lose this fourth place overall,” he observed, “but I want to be in the podium.

“If the chances come up we’ll be aggressive,” added Almeida, who remains in seventh overall, “we managed to push Carlos [Rodriguez] out of fourth place [on Sunday] and gain a lot of time on him. So we’ll go on working together.”

Ayuso did not rule out working alliances with other teams to try and topple riders ahead of him overall, although he did not feel alliance was necessarily the right word.

“It’s like when I and João made the most of a situation on Sierra Nevada where we worked with Ineos,” to limit the gaps on the Roglic-Evenepoel group, Ayuso observed. “They’re not exactly alliances, but situations that favour both riders. Just to name a name, that scenario could happen if, say, I broke away with Enric [Mas].”

Come what may in the Vuelta in any case, Ayuso agreed that one major development in this year’s Grand Tour was that after a long spell where it seemed that the Spanish pros were on the back foot in their home race, at last the drought on success was drawing to an end.

“You have to remember previously we enjoyed a long period where we were winning almost everything as a country,” Ayuso said as he analysed how big the contrasts had been between the periods of Spanish success and the periods where results were more disappointing.

“But now in the Vuelta Carlos and I are in the process of consolidating and confirming what our previous results had suggested we potentially could do. At the time, I think even if he’s been on the Vuelta podium before, Enric is performing at a level he’s never had before.” 

But as Ayuso repeated during Monday’s press conference, while the Vuelta’s outcome is yet to materialise, he already is convinced of one long-term result: “Thanks to me doing this Grand Tour, I know I’ll be a better rider next year.”

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