British climber Simon Yates' hopes of a good Vuelta a España performance are still well on track at this early stage of the race, thanks to his Mitchelton-Scott teammates, and Australian Jack Haig, in particular.
After what turned into a very tough day on stage 2 in Spain on Sunday – perhaps more than anything due to the intense heat – a number of big names, including BMC's Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), lost considerable time.
And while Nibali – who lost over four minutes – and Porte, who finished the stage 13:31 down on Valverde, would both claim that, on the way back from injury as they both are, they weren't necessarily aiming at contending for the overall title in Madrid on September 16, their very presence in the race was always danger enough for those with designs on the red leader's jersey.
"That 'flat' stage was not so flat with quite a few hills and, also, the heat made it quite difficult out there," said 24-year-old Haig, underlining the challenges that caused a number of riders to drop off the pace and out of contention in the last 50km of the 163.5km stage from Marbella to Caminito del Rey.
Haig finished the tough stage in 11th place, just three seconds behind stage winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and five seconds ahead of his Mitchelton-Scott team leader Yates.
"It was really quite hot out there in the last two hours of the race and especially through the valley in the last 30km coming up to the finish where Team Sky made it hard," Haig explained on his team's website.
"In the final, I was just trying to keep Simon in position. We had a bit of a discussion to make sure we both knew what was going on and he was happy for me to stay safe and be up there. I just tried to be in a really good position and make sure I could get through to the finish.
"Unfortunately, Simon was just a little bit behind, and the finish was quite hard, and there was a tiny split in the peloton, but in the end it was a good outcome for the team with both of us more or less being on the same time, and we can go into the next couple of stages happy with our performance today," continued Haig, who was a key source of assistance to Yates at the Giro d'Italia earlier this season.
Leading the Giro, Yates eventually fell out of contention on stage 19, which saw Chris Froome go on the attack over the Colle delle Finestre, and Yates lose nearly 40 minutes.
For Haig, the Vuelta is his second Grand Tour of the year, and his second time working for Yates in such a capacity over three weeks. But, judging by his performances so far this season, the Australian has to be considered a candidate for a Grand Tour victory himself one day.
While Yates will be able to count on continued good support from Haig, he also has his twin brother, Adam, riding for him at this year's Vuelta.
Adam Yates, who went into the race with the specific intention of helping his brother, finished stage 2 on Sunday over 13-and-a-half minutes down on Valverde, in the same group as Porte, decisively lifting any direct GC duties from his shoulders.
It ensures that Simon is the team's main focus, with Haig attempting to stay in the mix for as long as possible, while hoping to improve on his impressive 21st place overall at last year's Vuelta.
Overall, Simon Yates now sits in 12th place, 37 seconds down on overnight race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), with Haig 50 seconds in arrears in 24th place overall.
Even with Nibali and Porte seemingly out of the battle for overall honours, there remain a number of dangerous rivals who Haig and the Yates brothers are yet going to have to try to eliminate from contention over the coming three weeks.
They include LottoNL-Jumbo duo Steven Kruijswijk and George Bennett, Valverde's Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), EF Education First-Drapac's Rigoberto Uran and UAE Team Emirates' Fabio Aru, who all remain with 48 seconds of Kwiatkowski.
The Vuelta may have only just begun, but the battle to stay in contention is already very much on.
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