The Colombian, 2016 Vuelta winner, tried several times to take Yates’s red jersey on the Lagos de Covadonga climb on Sunday. Yates responded, however, and added a handful of seconds to his overall lead.
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Yates leads a classification battle with “minimal differences” among the top four. He has 26 seconds over Quintana’s team-mate Alejandro Valverde, 33 over Quintana, 43 over Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana). Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) sits at 1-29 minutes.
“Nairo has arrived well to the Vuelta,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué.
“There is not a natural superiority between any of them. It’s the only thing that is clear so far in this Vuelta is that they are all very equal. Sure things will change in the final week. The differences are minimal.”
Yates came to the Vuelta a España after the Giro d’Italia in May where he learned a few lessons. He led the race for 13 days, but his early moves to gain time on better time trial riders Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin eventually cost him.
He took the red leader’s jersey in the Vuelta in the first week and after letting it go, re-gained it in the second. In the last mountain stages, he rode as though he is ready to defend it from Asturias all the way to Spain’s capital Madrid.
“Yates is racing to defend, like he did, and attack when he can, to chase the time bonuses and to be ahead of our men,” Unzué said. “It’s what you’re seeing – there’s nothing else to explain. They’re equal and within 40 seconds.
“Each of them have equal opportunities. Each are doing what they can do. After 15 days of racing, what we’ve seen is that between the top four or five riders, there isn’t much difference and they’re on the same level. Yates, López, Nairo and Alejandro, they are all right there at the same level.”
Colombian Nairo Quintana, now 28 years old, sent shock waves through the peloton when he rode to second in his debut Tour de France in 2013 and won the mountains and young rider jersey. He won the 2014 Giro d’Italia and 2016 Vuelta, but critics are asking when the next Grand Tour title could come and speculate pressure could be building in casa Movistar.
“It’s not so much the pressure but rather he wants to take advantage of another opportunity to win another Grand Tour,” Unzué added. “To do this, of course, you have to be superior to your rivals, and today [on stage 15 to Lagos de Covadonga], Nairo wasn’t.
“His palmarès don’t count for much and the races are won each time out on the road. It’s not pressure.”
Of the race situation in the Vuelta, Quintana said that he can sense “tension” within the top four or five cyclists. After today’s rest day, they have a time trail to sort the classification on Tuesday and more mountain days afterwards.
“The tension builds because everyone wants to defend their position and you look for allies, and try not to lose anything,” Quintana explained. “[Yates] is the leader and he had to defend it.”