The Polish rider says its up to the likes of Quintana, Yates and Valverde to put the pressure on for the win

Team Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski leads the Vuelta a España but warns that it is up to the others to take control because he is “not the biggest classification contender” in the 2018 race.

The race climbed to Alfacar to end stage four on Tuesday. The polish cyclist defended his red jersey lead, losing some time to Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).

He leads with seven seconds over young German Buchmann and 10s over Yates.

Kwiatkowski said, “I am not the most dangerous in the face in the general classification, there’s [Nairo] Quintana, [Alejandro] Valverde, [George] Bennett, Buchmann, Yates… they are the ones who have to put pressure on if they want to win the Vuelta.”

On the 12.4-kilometre climb to Alfacar, north of Granada, Ben King (Dimension Data) won the stage from an escape group. Yates attacked with around three kilometres remaining. He gained 27 seconds. Buchmann gained 25.

“They need these finals to save time,” Kwiatkowski added. “My interest was not to hunt the breakaway, but to maintain a good position in the general despite the last climb, to conserve my strength, and that is what I have done. I am happy.”

Team Sky gave the leadership reins to 28-year-old Kwiatkowski for the first time in a grand tour. Both of its stars Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas skipped the Vuelta a España after a busy early season, the latter winning the Tour de France. They are racing in the Tour of Britain later in September instead of Spain, where Froome won in 2017.

Kwiatkowski for years dominated in one-day classics and week-long stage races. His palmarès includes a the 2014 road world title, Milan-San Remo, Tirreno-Adriatico and from earlier this month, the Tour of Poland.

Team Sky has always relied on him to help its team in the grand tours. He developed as a climber and a contender for three weeks. Now, it is giving him more space to race for the overall and protecting him with riders normally reserved for Froome, like David De La Cruz and Sergio Henao.

“We tried to control the breakaway [yesterday] but it was convenient for us to let the break have the advantage, we thought other teams would push on the last climb, and that was the case, with LottoNL-Jumbo,” he explained.

“The stage might have looked easily until the last climb. The pace was more relaxed at the beginning of the race, but the temperature was high all day. When the breakaway had reached 10 minutes and the thermometer marked 35°, the challenge began.”

Nearly three weeks and 17 stages remain in the 2018 Vuelta, with the most serious climbs coming at the end of week two and in week three. Kwiatkowski remains in the red jersey for another day and starts today’s stage five, an easier day, as leader in Granada.

“I’m happy about my performance,” he said. “I’m looking forward for another challenging stage.”