Mas storms onto Vuelta a Espana podium

Last Friday, Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) lay 12th overall at the Vuelta a España while taking daily doses of antibiotics. The 23-year-old Spaniard has been widely dubbed 'the next Alberto Contador' but it seemed that any hope of a breakthrough Grand Tour performance would have to be postponed until next season.

What a difference a week can make. His sickness now behind him, Mas has climbed no fewer than nine places in the space of five stages and must be pinching himself as he finds himself in a podium position just three days shy of Madrid.

Mas' rise started on stage 13 – the first of three summit finishes in Asturias – where he finished 'best of the rest' behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). He was only a few seconds off the pace on stage 14 and finished alongside the big favourites at Lagos de Covadonga the following afternoon.

Having cautiously set his sights on a place in the top 10 as he returned to health, by the first rest day he found himself sixth overall, but his rise has only accelerated in the subsequent 48 hours. He placed sixth on the stage 16 time trial to move above Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) – and provide the clearest indication yet that he possesses the all-around skillset required to win a Grand Tour. Finally, on Wednesday's steep finish atop Monte Oiz, he was the first GC rider across the line and jumped onto the provisional podium.

"I'm third, the team is doing a great job, so I'm happy," Mas said succinctly as he warmed down on the rollers beyond the finish line at the top of the mountain.

"I said that in the third week I'd go well and for the time being, yesterday and today I felt good. I didn't know how the others would respond today, but luckily I responded a bit better."

The 'next Contador' tags have perhaps worn a little thin as Spain has contemplated life after the all-conquering Pistolero. Mas, though, was appointed successor by the man himself. He rode for Contador's development teams as a youngster and was invited on a training camp in 2015 with the Tinkoff-Saxo WorldTour team before turning pro last year with Quick-Step via their feeder team.

Mas enjoyed a fine neo-pro season, finishing runner-up at the Vuelta a Burgos before making his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España. This year he won a stage and finished sixth overall at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and took fourth overall at the Tour de Suisse – both WorldTour level races – before arriving in Malaga for the Vuelta.

Having exceeded all expectations thus far, and having risen so rapidly in the last few days, the only question now is, how far can he go?

He is 57 seconds adrift of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 1:22 down on overall leader Simon Yates. Even if he managed to distance Yates by eight seconds in sight of the line on Monte Oiz, he suggested it would be difficult to entertain any serious notion of overhauling the Briton.

"We saw today that Yates had his brother [Adam] working for him," Mas noted. "It's not like he's done nothing all race, but it looks like the team have held him back specifically for this final week, and you could see how well he was going there."

Still, there's a sense that, in the folly of Enric Mas' Vuelta, anything could still happen. Not even he knows quite what to make of it.

"There are still four days left and I just need to keep my feet on the ground and enjoy it," he said, before being asked what would represent the ceiling of his ambitions.

"Madrid," he said. "The ceiling is in Madrid."

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