After his podium finish at the Vuelta a España last year – in only his second Grand Tour – expectations surrounding Enric Mas are as high as ever. The rider dubbed 'the next Alberto Contador' heads to the Tour de France for the first time in 2019 and his own hopes are just as high, as he insisted he'll be there to try to win it.
Mas discussed his Tour debut last week, sitting down in front of the media at Deceunicnk-Quick-Step's team presentation in Calpe. Moments beforehand, Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere had made reference to the 'next Contador' moniker – imparted by the seven-time Grand Tour winner himself – and how it was a 'poisoned chalice'.
Mas, who has in the past insisted he'd rather be seen as the first Enric Mas rather than the new Alberto Contador, seems to have successfully deflected the pressure, having only turned 24 last week.
"I now just take it as a joke," Mas said of being compared to Contador. "The pressure I put on myself is the biggest of all."
As well as having ridden for the Fundación Contador development team, the speed of Mas' rise does draw comparisons with Contador, who won the Tour de France in 2007 on what was only his second Grand Tour appearance. Mas turned pro with Quick-Step in 2017, riding the Vuelta in his first season before going back to claim a memorable third place overall last September.
While Bob Jungels, the team's other Grand Tour general classification leader, will return to the Giro d'Italia in 2019, Mas feels ready to lead the line at the Tour de France.
"There are people who say to me that I missed out a stepping stone by not going to the Giro. But I've done the Vuelta twice. I don't know if I am prepared for the Tour, but I feel prepared," he said. "I'm imagining a first week with a lot of tension, a lot of crashes. After that, as the days go by things should become more relaxed."
As for his hopes, Mas, who exceeded all expectations with his ride at the Vuelta, understands the challenges of the Tour but isn't tentative about his potential.
"Personally, I want to win it," he said. "I'm going there to get to know the race. I've never been there, so let's see what happens."
One issue that has come to the fore since Mas' precocious emergence as a Grand Tour contender is his team. Quick-Step, although perennially one of the most successful teams, are largely built around the Classics and, when it comes to the Grand Tours, stage wins.
While there's ample strength in depth when it comes to building lead-out trains around sprinters, the team is lacking when it comes to supporting a Grand Tour leader over three weeks and multiple mountain ranges. After the Vuelta, Mas is, in theory, in a position to seek more support for his ambitions, and has already been linked with a move away from Quick-Step, with his contract set to expire at the end of 2019. A number of key riders left this summer as team boss Lefevere battled to secure new financial backing, yet Mas said he had no thoughts of leaving himself.
"I had a contract with them. Other offers came in, but if you have a contract… They gave me my opportunity and I want to fulfill that," he said.
Mas also made the case that, if he went to a more traditionally Grand Tour oriented team, such as Team Sky or his native Movistar, he wouldn't have had the opportunities he has enjoyed at Quick-Step blue and quite probably wouldn't be able to call himself a Grand Tour podium finisher.
"They are different teams. They put everything behind one thing, whereas in this team we go for stages and GC. It's different. At the Vuelta, Viviani was also there and won stages, and I managed to get on the podium, so I don't know," Mas said.
"If I'd gone to Sky or Movistar I wouldn't have had the status or anything. There are a lot of guys there further up the pecking order. I might not even have ridden a Grand Tour. In this team I've already been able to do two, and finish on the podium in one of them."
As with the Vuelta, Mas will head to the Tour as something of a lone wolf, with Viviani likely to lead the line with a supporting cast of two or three riders, while Julian Alaphilippe will go for stage wins alongside Philippe Gilbert.
Lefevere makes no bones about this, going as far as to suggest Mas does not need team support at the Tour.
"We don't have to help him this year; Sky and Movistar will help. They control the race, we stay in the wheel. If the legs are there to beat them, you beat them," he said.
You see what happens in the Tour – there is always a guy who controls the race until a couple of kilometres from the finish, then Froome tries to attack, and if he doesn't succeed then Thomas attacks. It's the same story with Movistar; they're always blocking the race. Well, the more they block the race, the better for Enric Mas."
That said, Lefevere insisted that, if Mas did end up signing a new contract, he wouldn't find himself in the same situation forever.
"If he stays with me through 2021, I will try to get the riders he deserves."