The youngest rider in the Vuelta a España, Juan Ayuso, continued to punch massively above his weight on Sunday with a stunning ride to the Les Praeres summit finish which has seen the 19-year-old move back into the top five overall.
The UAE Team Emirates racer clinched sixth place on the ultra-steep 4km Les Praeres climb, 34 seconds behind Vuelta leader Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), and the best placed of all the GC contenders on the stage bar the Belgian.
Ayuso, therefore, pulls down the curtain on his Vuelta first week in fifth place overall, a solid enough performance for any GC contender but even more notable for a rider doing his first ever Grand Tour and who also said he had had a very difficult start to the Vuelta as well.
The young Spanish phenomenon made it clear though, that he was riding without any pressure to perform from the team, and that João Almeida, currently lying in seventh, remains UAE’s leader for the GC.
“I came to the Vuelta well prepared but I had had a tough week beforehand, so everything I get here is a bonus,” Ayuso told Spanish TV.
“I was going better today [Sunday] than I did yesterday and I talked it over with my sports director [Joxean Fernandez] Matxin because you have to be careful on such a steep climb. If you go into the red there’s no way you can recover so you can end up truly out of it.”
Ayuso could hardly be faulted for how he handled the climb, though, despite saying later he did not know Les Praeres except from what he’d seen on the computer. An early drive on the lower slopes failed to work out, but after that he took it steadily, first catching Enric Mas (Movistar) with Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers) then storming away from the two other Spaniards close to the finish.
“I tried early on, but Remco is way superior to all of us right now,” Ayuso, who fell to the ground almost as soon as he reached the line, said. “So I ended up riding up most of the climb with Carlos and then went for it with about 800 metres to go.
“It seemed like the last part of the climb would never end, and when I finished I was so exhausted I couldn’t stay upright.”
Yet if Ayuso’s current performances are gaining him plenty of admirers, he revealed, too, that his early part of the Vuelta, prior to his strong performances in the mountains, had arguably been where he had had to dig the deepest so far to stay in contention.
His most difficult climb, in fact, to date had been the third category ascent of La Herrera on stage 4, where “I was suffering so bad I thought I wasn’t going to get to the top.
“I don’t know if it was the heat we had on stage 4, the rest day and transfer back from Holland or that I started off badly, but I had a really tough day when the race got back here.
“So I just kept pushing on the climb, telling myself to get through one more kilometre and then when I’d done that, telling myself to get through another and so on all the way to the top. But it was harder to believe that I could get through that day, than anything else I’ve done since then.”
Yet at the same time, he insisted, that the reception he was getting from the Spanish fans on the sides of the roads made it much easier to handle the difficult days. Furthermore, with Almeida as GC leader for UAE Team Emirates, all he needed to do was take the Vuelta one day at a time and see how it worked out.
“The leader is still João and there’s no pressure,” he insisted. “Even if I blow tomorrow, next week or on the last day of the race, then whatever I’ve done up to that point is a bonus.
“So I enjoyed today a lot, everybody shouting my name that always gives you an extra boost, and here in the Vuelta, it’s incredible. When you’re suffering, that kind of support is something huge.”