Mas nets stage win and second overall in Vuelta a Espana

In one fell swoop in the Vuelta a España on Saturday, up-and-coming Spaniard Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) secured both second overall in his home race and his first stage win in a Grand Tour to boot.

The symbolism of Mas replacing Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) - a rider 15 years his senior and who sank from second to fifth on the Vuelta's second Pyrenean stage - as Spain's top podium finisher in the 2018 Vuelta was hard to miss too.

Mas is widely seen as representative of a new generation of racers in his country - and further afield, too - and last year he was tipped by Alberto Contador as a possible successor, too. And although whether he can really follow Contador's wheel tracks remains to be seen, the young racer from Mallorca certainly exceeded expectations on stage 20 of the Vuelta, narrowly outduelling Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team) for a victory at the race's final summit finish and moving into second overall.

In the process, Mas also secured Quick-Step Floor's third stage of the 2018 Vuelta a España in another successful Grand Tour for the Belgian squad. And in Madrid on Sunday, they may yet add a fourth with Elia Viviani.

Given he has raised his own bar in such dramatic style, Mas was even asked on Saturday evening if at any point on stage 20 he had thought whether he could take the overall win after Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) started to lag behind himself and Lopez, but the young Spaniard said he had never seen that as a realistic option.

"To be honest when I went away with Lopez, I had no idea that Yates was distanced. It was only when they radioed through that he was behind that I found that out," Mas said later.

"When I saw how far back he was, 20 seconds, then 15 then 25, I knew that getting podium was possible but winning was still out of reach."

As for his stage win, Mas said - speaking more than 90 minutes after his victory in a delayed press conference - that it was only just beginning to sink in, and that he had taken his first ever Grand Tour podium finish was almost impossible to grasp.

"To take a win here in Andorra, my second residence, is a real dream result, but I'm still trying not to get too excited about my podium finish."

"Normally nothing happens on the last day of a Grand Tour race, but I don't want to mess it up at the last minute, so I'm trying not to think too hard about that yet."

Equally, he said he would try not to change too much as a racer, despite being the first Grand Tour podium finisher for Spain since Valverde in the Giro d'Italia in 2016. "I'm just 23, I've been dreaming of this for a long time, it's my first time and it won't be my last, I hope. But for now, I just want to enjoy it."

With three riders under 27 as the race's podium finishers, Mas said he recognised that the 2018 Vuelta was perhaps a landmark edition for the new generation. "Geraint [Thomas, Sky] and Chris [Froome-Sky] are still up there, but in the future, I'll be working hard to get the same kind of results as I did here.

"Maybe cycling is changing a bit and whereas before 27 or 26 was when you started to win races, now it's 23 or 24. But at the same time, experience is always really important."

Mas said that his Vuelta had been divided into very different sections, with a good first week, but then a drop in results on the Covatilla [stage 9] where he lost 50 seconds. That was explained when he went down with a fever on the first rest day and if there had been a hard day the next stage, rather than a flat one across western Spain, he said on Saturday, he'd have probably quit.

His third week, however, was one where he began to bounce back and regain his first-week condition, and going for the podium and/or stage win became a real possibility again.

Was there a stage where he was surprised by how well he had performed? "This one," he argued, "I didn't know if I could get the victory and to do that in my home is absolutely brilliant. My parents, my manager, my trainer were all here. It was great."

Having done so well in his second ever Vuelta, it was almost inevitable Mas was asked about his options in the upcoming Worlds. Mas was realistic about his chances, though, and said he would be working for Valverde. "Let's be honest," he said, "my legs aren't anywhere as good as Valverde's after 200 or 250 kilometres. I'll be delighted to do what I can for him."

A question about the Tour de France was all but de rigeur, given how starved the Spanish have been of top results there on GC in recent years, with - again - Valverde their last podium finisher, back in 2015. And Mas confirmed that he would hope to be on the start line in France next July.

"If [Patrick] Lefevere [team manager] agrees, I'd be delighted to be there," Mas concluded.

First, in any case, come the celebrations in Madrid, the World Championships and the chance for Mas to take in everything he has achieved in a race that he started as a total outsider for GC. Thoughts of the Tour can wait for now. But maybe not for long.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.