La Vuelta 2018: Simon Yates clinches historic triumph as Viviani wins final stage
Great Britain’s Simon Yates made history on Sunday by winning the 73rd edition of the Vuelta a Espana after Italy’s Elia Viviani triumphed in the final stage on the streets of Madrid.
The rider from Bury in Lancashire finished safely in the main pack as Italian champion Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) beat the Slovakian world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and compatriot Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segadredo) in a fiercely fought sprint finish to Stage 21.
Since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour in 2012, nine out of 19 Grand Tours have been won by British riders, with the current winning run now stretching to five editions following Froome’s victories in last year’s Tour and Vuelta, and this year's grand slam.
After 21 stages and almost 3,300 kilometres of racing in Spain, Yates beat the Spaniard Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) by 1min 46sec and the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) by 2min 04sec in the battle for the red jersey.
Victor of two stages, Valverde secured the fourth green points classification jersey of his illustrious career – a small consolation following the 38-year-old’s collapse during the race’s two decisive mountain stages in Andorra. He also registered a record tenth top 10 finish in his national tour.
Valverde trailed Yates by just 25 seconds going into Stage 19 but struggled as the race rose above 2,000 metres for the first time on Friday, before plummeting off the podium on Saturday after hitting the wall on the final climb of the race, the Coll de Gallina.
Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) won the king of the mountains classification after overtaking Spaniard Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) – who had led the KOM standings since the opening stage – in Stage 17. De Gendt became the first Belgium to win the blue polka dot jersey in 35 years.
Although Lopez wore the white jersey entering Madrid, Yates also topped the combined classification thanks to his consistent riding – which included a stage win at Les Praeres and three podium finishes in other key mountain stages.
With Valverde finishing fifth and the Colombian Nairo Quintana coming eighth, Movistar won the team classification, while 23-year-old Mas was the best placed young rider.
An average age of 24 across the top three riders marked the youngest podium in the Vuelta since the second edition in 1936, where the average age was 23.
How Simon Yates won La Vuelta
Victory in the third Grand Tour of the season drew a line under Yates’s sensational implosion during May’s Giro when, wearing the leader’s pink jersey going into Stage 19, the Briton collapsed on the Colle delle Finestre on the day compatriot Froome pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in recent cycling history.
Finishing the stage 38 minutes down on Froome, Yates plummeted out of the top 10 and eventually reached Milan in 21st position despite winning three stages in the famous maglia rosa.
But Yates only benefitted from the setback, winning the queen stage and finishing runner-up in the Tour de Pologne two weeks before starting the Vuelta with the red jersey firmly on his mind.
Before the final stage to Madrid on Sunday, Yates told Eurosport that his victory came down to “a lot of hard work, persistence and belief” following his eleventh-hour disappointment in the Giro.
“We really had to believe that we could pull it off,” the Mitchelton-Scott rider said. “We chose our moments well throughout the three weeks. It's a very long time and it's all come together. It's unbelievable."
Yates attacked the Vuelta very differently than he did the Giro – by not attacking. In stark contrast to his gung-ho approach to the Italian race, Yates embarked on a conservative showing in Spain, favouring consistency and self-preservation rather than instant gratification – even if it often left him chomping at the bit. It was a method entitled “conservative flair” by his Australian team.
Supported by his twin brother Adam, Yates took the race lead for the first time after the first major summit finish at La Covatilla almost by a mistake, riding into red after French leader Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) cracked and Valverde was tailed off near the summit in Stage 9 ahead of the first rest day.
After three stages in red, Yates tactically conceded the red jersey to Spaniard Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) in Stage 12 before taking over the race summit once again two days later after his victory atop the narrow goat-track climb of Les Praeres.
While Quintana faltered, Valverde came within 25 seconds of Yates’s lead at Balcon de Bizkaia in Stage 17. But after the Spanish veteran struggled on the race’s only high-altitude finish, Yates extended his gap to 1’38” atop the Coll de la Rabassa in Andorra on Friday.
After Valverde cracked the next day, Spanish youngster Mas rode into second place after his victory on the Coll de la Gallina as Yates, his overall victory assured, checked his effort to come home 23 seconds down.
The rest, after riding into Madrid with a modicum of conservative flair, was history.
Viviani secures hat-trick after Stage 21 win
Twelve months after Alberto Contador bade the Spanish fans farewell on the streets of Madrid, compatriot Igor Anton (Dimension Data) was given the same honour as the remaining 156 riders entered the Spanish capital for 11 laps of the city centre.
Anton, the 35-year-old former Euskaltel-Euskadi and Movistar rider, retired from the sport at the end of the stage after a career that brought four Vuelta stage wins, two Vuelta top ten finishes, and a stage on the Giro.
The Basque rider was reabsorbed shortly before the intermediate lap, which was won by the Russian Nikita Stalnov (Astana) ahead of 10 six-kilometre laps. Almost immediately, the racing finally got going, following a processional ride into Madrid during which the Mitchelton-Scott team of Yates posed for numerous photo opportunities in a limited-edition red-tinged kit.
Portugal’s Tiago Machado (Katusha-Alpecin) rode clear with five riders in a move that never built up a lead of more than 10 seconds. Within two and a half laps, it was all over thanks to the combined chase of Quick-Step Floors and Trek-Segafredo – working hard for their sprinters Viviani and Nizzolo.
Four riders countered to open a small gap – and they were down to three when Stalnov picked up a puncture with 28km remaining.
Diego Rubio (Burgos-BH), Joey Rosskopf (BMC Racing Team) and Garikoitz Bravo (Euskadi-Murias) combined well but never saw their gap increase above 16 seconds.
The three escapees were swept up just ahead of the bell sounding for the final lap. Quick-Step Floors jostled with the LottoNL-Jumbo team of Dutchman Danny van Poppel on the front of the pack as the riders zipped under the kilometre-to-go banner.
Viviani found himself detached from his train after the tight hairpin bend preceding the flamme rouge – but the 29-year-old kept his cool, putting in a powerful surge by the barriers to take his third win of the race by a bike length.
Sagan finished runner-up for the fourth time in the race, with Nizzolo, Van Poppel and Frenchman Marc Sarreau (Groupama-FDJ) completing the top five.
Coming one day after team-mate Mas won the final mountain-top finish, Viviani’s victory was he 67th of his career, his Quick-Step team’s 67th of the season and their 88th scalp in Grand Tours – seven of which have been won by Viviani in his first season since joining from Team Sky.
But for all their swashbuckling brilliance, the Belgian team were eclipsed by their Australian counterparts Mitchelton-Scott, whose togetherness, strength in depth and belief combined with the individual panache of Yates to secure their first overall victory in a Grand Tour.