Simon Yates remains on top of the Vuelta a España GC after its toughest mountain stage to date but as the Briton was quick to point out at the summit of the Covadonga, the overall gaps are very small and the final Grand Tour of the season remains wide open.
The Mitchelton-Scott leader launched at least three attacks on the Lagos de Covadonga climb but although his main GC rivals were visibly shaken by his accelerations and three top names, Emanuel Buchman (BORA-Hansgrohe), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) definitively fell behind, Yates only managed briefly to stay clear of his closest rivals.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) dragged the small group of favourites back up to the Briton on the first attack, and then Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team) managed to form a rather uneasy alliance to neutralise his others moves.
After that, when López went clear, Yates gestured angrily to Quintana for collaboration, but as the Briton put it “there was zero cooperation and that was it.”
On the plus side for Yates, he remains in the lead as the Vuelta enters its third week, with the Torrelavega time trial on Tuesday his next big challenge.
“With us all being so equal on the climbs, it could be there where the Vuelta is decided,” he suggested.
Asked directly if he considered himself the strongest of the favourites, Yates replied: “I’m always confident in my own ability, so I just hope to continue like this, but the gaps are still very small.”
“I’m not exactly a level above everybody else, we’re all very close together.”
After congratulating Pinot on his attack, Yates said that he had found no collaboration from the small group of favourites that remained behind the Frenchman when he asked for some help in chasing down a late charge by Lopez.
“There was no discussion,” he said tersely, diplomatically playing down any problems. “I just asked why we weren’t working.”
Third on the line after a final acceleration in the last 500 metres, Yates has now stretched his advantage to 26 seconds on Valverde and 32 on Quintana.
Which of the two worry him more?
“It’s hard to say, they’re both very strong and both big champions but we will know more after the time trial.”
Interestingly, Yates tipped Valverde as the more dangerous of his challengers for Tuesday and agreed with that the Vuelta could now be decided in the time trial.
“It’s very possible,” he replied, “I hope to have a good ride there, because I’ve been slowly improving in the time trials. But the gaps are very small, it’s hard to see which rider is better for now, I haven’t seen the new GC yet. And I’ll need to see the parcours before I know how good or bad it is for me.”
Yates remains in control of the overall classification and more than able to contain most of the attacks in the mountains. Once the dust has settled on Tuesday’s time trial, if Yates is still ahead on GC, he will be closer than ever to taking a third Grand Tour win for Great Britain in a single season and for three different riders. First, though, comes Tuesday and the final week of the Vuelta a Espana.