Three years after his breakthrough second place overall in the 2018 Vuelta a España, Enric Mas (Movistar) returned to the centre stage of the race in fine style on Sunday's ascent of the Velefique on stage 9 of the Vuelta.
Mas' teammate Miguel Angel Lopez had briefly managed to go clear with Adam Yates (Ineos Grenadiers) 10 kilometres from the line, although that move race leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) clamped that move down in person. But Mas' move five kilometres from the summit proved far more successful as Roglic initially shadowed his attack. The two then pooled their resources and collaborated to distance their rivals.
Mas could not match Roglic's final charge for the line and had to settle for third on the stage. But his two-up move with Roglic has propelled Mas back into the second place overall he held briefly after Thursday's stage to Cullera and in a far stronger position time-wise as well.
Now 28 seconds behind Roglic, Mas was quick to quench Spanish media hopes that he might have felt at any point on the upper slopes of Velefique that he was stronger than the defending champion. However, at the end of a tough first week, he is currently Roglic's closest rival on GC, and now the only one still within a minute on the Jumbo-Visma leader.
"I'm very happy," Mas, second overall to Simon Yates in the 2018 Vuelta, told reporters after the stage.
"I haven't had these feelings in a long time on the bike. The last time I enjoyed racing as much as I have this week was back in 2018."
On the plus side for Movistar on stage 9, López has moved up to third overall in an almost equally impressive performance on the Velefique.
"Miguel Angel responded well to attacks early on and we both had to get as much time as we could on other rivals, " Mas explained, "so that was what I tried to do."
However, on a day of mixed fortunes for the Spanish WorldTour team, Mas also offered words of sympathy and hopes of a speedy recovery to Movistar teammate Johan Jacobs, who crashed out mid-stage. Movistar's misfortune comes less than 48 hours after losing their veteran team captain Alejandro Valverde on Friday in a dramatic fall during the stage.
Mas rejected suggestions that he had in any way been superior to Roglic as the duo stormed towards the line in the final kilometres. His turns on the front of the two-man move had been longer, he explained, because he had more to gain by putting time into his rivals at that point. Roglic easily moved ahead at the line, and apart from snatching the bigger time bonus, he even gapped Mas by a second in the process.
"I don't think I ever had Roglic up against the ropes, we were both going flat out. He's the leader, he's under no obligation to work with me, but even so, he collaborated well and it helped us both," Mas explained. "I'm just happy, at the very least, to be at the same level as Roglic today on the climb."
If the Velefique duel ended in a narrow victory for Roglic, Mas has no intention of settling for the podium in the GC battle.
"We didn't have him up against the cords, as I said." he commented, "But someday we'll try."
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