While race leader Remco Evenepoel has shown his strength in the mountains of the Vuelta a España, Enric Mas has fought to be the best of the rest.
The climber from Majorca broke out from the crowd of challengers on stage 6, pushing himself to the limit in the mist on Pico Jano to stay with Remco Evenepoel.
On the savage gradients of Les Praeres on stage 9, he was again the last man to let go of Evenepoel’s wheel.
The man in second overall, 1:12 behind the Belgian race leader, vowed to not go down without a fight in his rest day press conference on Monday.
“I’d like to do an all or nothing for the Vuelta,” he said. “I am going to do everything to win the race.” However, he is well aware of the high stakes, given his Movistar squad is embroiled in a fight to keep their WorldTour status and avoid relegation. There are a precious 850 UCI points on offer to the race’s victor, 680 for second and 575 for third.
“I’m aware of the UCI points issue and the higher I finish, the more points we’ll get. We can’t commit suicide for the GC or give up those points,” he said.
Mas has been heartened by his recovery from COVID-19, after a positive test forced him to abandon the Tour de France, having already slipped out of the race’s top ten.
“I’m taking it day by day. I had more doubts in the Netherlands than I do now, but there are still a few,” he said. “I’ve been riding with the strongest in the race and that’s motivating.”
While he has limited losses better than his rivals, Mas couldn’t look past the superiority of Remco Evenepoel in the Vuelta so far. “Remco is the strongest,” he said. “I don’t know if he will crack one day or not, but he has been the best throughout. We are seeing the best version of him since he turned professional.”
The next flashpoint in the Vuelta is Tuesday’s stage 10 time trial on a 30.9km route between Elche and Alicante. Sat between Evenepoel and Roglič overall, Mas finds himself in a sandwich of top-notch time triallists and is highly likely to lose his second place overall.
“I hope to do a good ride and not lose much time. I haven’t thought about what I could lose, I’ll give it my all. Sometimes I’ve done good time trials and I hope this will be one of those days,” he said.
It has not just been an encouraging race for the Movistar leader, but a resurgent one for the home nation. On top of stage wins for Marc Soler and Jesús Herrada, compatriots Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and teenager Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) are already snapping at his heels in fourth and fifth overall. Although only 27 years old, Mas must feel like a war-wearied veteran in comparison.
He talked of the “great future” that they have ahead of them: “They are rivals, but I see that Spanish cycling is coming back to life. It is clear we have young riders who are going to win big races.”