Simon Yates mulling over strategy at Vuelta a Espana

After unexpectedly taking the lead of the Vuelta a España at La Covatilla, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) remains unsure of what his and his team’s strategy will be during the race’s second week.

Although Yates is targeting overall victory at this Vuelta, his advantage is a slender one second ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and there are ten riders within a minute of his overall lead.

Yates arrived late at the team hotel on Sunday evening after the transfer that followed stage 9, meaning that a full discussion of how best to handle the race leadership scenario is still pending. For the time being, he and the team are weighing up their options.

“We’ve only talked very briefly, we got here late, I went straight to bed, so we haven’t had much time to discuss things yet,” Yates told a small group of reporters before heading off for a training ride on Monday morning.

“But the plan won’t change that much. We’re still going to take this conservative approach to the race, or it’s my belief we should do.

“The next few stages are not GC days [the next summit finish is on Friday – ed.] so it would be foolish to waste energy, really, when we’ve only got a one-second buffer. So we’ll see how it goes.”

Yates led the Giro d'Italia for two weeks, winning three stages in the process, but lost the pink jersey after he cracked in the final week and conceded 38 minutes on stage 19 to Bardonecchia won by Chris Froome. He finished the Giro in 21st place overall.

Yates admitted that he has found the more defensive plan that he and Mitchelton-Scott have employed at this Vuelta to be a little frustrating, and he said he had felt the urge to “step on the accelerator” at times. Indeed, on Tuesday's finale on the Alto de Alfacar, Yates tore up the script completely and went for it, despite the original team plan being to stay with the other GC racers.

“I would prefer to be more pro-active but it depends on the stage and the race, and the feelings at the time,” Yates said.

“At one point yesterday [stage 9], for example, it eased quite significantly, I thought, ‘Here we go, everyone’s getting tired,’ and normally I would probably have tried something there. But I didn’t, I stayed on the wheel but then on the final I didn’t have the legs anyway, I was a little bit behind, so maybe it was better that I didn’t try anything. But like I say, it changes every day and you never really know.”

Yates made his Grand Tour breakthrough at the 2016 Vuelta, soloing to victory at Luintra – where the race will return on Wednesday. That year, he finished sixth overall, with teammate Esteban Chaves in third.

“That was my first big win on the road, one I have a great memories of, and I love coming back here, it is a great race,” Yates said. “Maybe it’s a bit too warm, but that’s one of those things. I’m happy to have this jersey and I’ll try to defend it as well as possible.”

Valverde is, of course, breathing down Yates' neck on the GC and with bonus seconds on offer at stage finishes and in the daily intermediate sprint, it would not be so surprising if the Spaniard took the roja leader's jersey in the short-term.

“That would also be ok,” Yates suggested. “I’d still be really close on GC but without the responsibility of defending it day in day out. But I don’t know, maybe they don’t want the jersey. We’ll see.”

Summit meetings

Further ahead, there are a number of final climbs that Yates knows either from previous editions of the Vuelta or from living in Andorra. In 2016 the race went up La Camperona and the Lagos de Covadonga, while in 2017, it went up the Col de la Rabassa in Andorra.

“It can be an advantage, but not always. If you don’t have the legs, it doesn’t matter if you know the roads,” Yates said. “But of course I’m looking forward to those stages because the last time we went up there, that year I had a good ride. I’m looking forward to it.”

Yates was reluctant to pick out any one GC rival above the rest, though he noted that Wilco Kelderman’s loss of time after a mechanical problem on stage 6 had not removed him from contention. The Dutchman lies 14th overall, 1:50 behind Yates, but was among the strongest riders on La Covatilla on Sunday.

“They’re all looking good. Yesterday [stage 9] split up a bit but we’re all pretty close still. I think the guy that most people really aren’t talking about too much, or I’ve not seen that much, is Wilco,” Yates said. “He’s been there every day, he had a mechanical on the cross-winds but he was there beforehand, and he’s probably one of the only guys who can pull out a decent TT. And he’s really not that far away from me on the GC. So he’ll be one to watch.

“But everybody’s been looking pretty good so far, although with only two difficult stages so far where we can actually show something, it’s difficult to say. But we’ll find out more in the coming stages.”

Famous for its historic centre and long-established university, Salamanca, where the first rest day is held and stage 10 starts, has become something of a hot spot for British success in the Vuelta a España over the years.

In 2001, David Millar took the lead in the opening prologue in Salamanca. In 2011, Chris Froome took his first ever Grand Tour lead following the time trial in Salamanca. As if that was not enough, Mark Cavendish won a bunch sprint stage here in 2010, and way back in 1967, Tom Simpson won a stage that started from Salamanca and finished in Madrid.

51 years on, when the peloton rolls out of Salamanca’s central plaza on Tuesday lunchtime, Yates will write the latest installment of that British history.

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