Yates will be able to seal overall victory on the final stage to Madrid on Sunday after successfully navigating the final mountain stage
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) set up overall victory in the 2018 Vuelta a España after finishing third on the penultimate stage as second place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) capitulated on the gruelling route through the Andorran mountains.
Yates had attacked on the penultimate climb of the day to distance his closest rival, but on the final climb he was able to ride at his own pace as Valverde cracked with around 4km to go on the slopes of Coll de la Gallina.
Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) went on to win the stage having followed Yates’ initial attack which joined Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) up the road, and he rode with Lopez to the top of the final climb before beating the Colombian in the sprint to the line. Yates arrived in at 23 seconds to the lead pair to take overall victory heading into the final day in Madrid.
Both Mas and Lopez moved themselves onto the overall podium with their move in second and third respectively, with Valverde eventually finishing at 3-10 and third place at the start of the day Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) finishing at 1-15 on the stage.
How it happened
Stage 20 would give the riders their shortest stage of the 2018 Vuelta, but it would be far from an easy day in Andorra with six categorised climbs along the way including an especial category summit finish.
As expected, their would be a big fight for the breakaway on the opening climb from the start, with a number of riders hoping to take their final chance of a stage win.
After numerous attacks over the first climb, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) was able to break free from an escape to take maximum king of the mountain points over the first climb.
After some toing and froing between riders getting out front, a group was eventually able to settle on the descent with Vincenzo Nibali, Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Dario Cataldo, Omar Fraile (Astana), Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), Amanuel Ghebreigzhaber (Dimension Data), Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac), David de la Cruz, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), José and Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) getting clear.
They were able to establish a maximum gap of around three minutes, but with tentative moves from the likes of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) out of the main bunch, their day didn’t hold much hope as the peloton’s pace increased and the gap began to come down.
The gap was down to just over 1-30 over the day’s third climb with 54km to go, and by now the break was gradually decreasing in numbers as the attrition began to set in. Astana were now driving hard on the front of the peloton as they looked to setup Miguel Angel Lopez for an attack.
That attack came with around 38km to go on the fourth of six climbs, with Dario Cataldo and Omar Fraile (who dropped back from the breakaway) helping launch Lopez up the road with no immediate response from Simon Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott team.
Out front, the break was collapsing, with riders falling away on the climb until it was just De la Cruz and Majka out front with a small gap.
Nibali and Mollema were able to to latch on to Lopez as they drifted back, and they were able to bridge back to the leading duo with 34km to go, but the Yates group weren’t far behind.
Over the top of the climb, Quintana went clear on the descent and held off the chasing Yates group for the 12km descent by around four seconds. As he hit the penultimate climb with 20km to go, Lopez again jumped from the group of favourites to join his compatriot.
The Colombians worked together up the early part of the climb, and were eventually able to put a significant gap of 21 seconds into the chasing Yates brothers, with Adam Yates leading, on a flatter section of the climb.
Race leader Yates then surprisingly attacked with just over 17km to go, with only Enric Mas able to follow, with Valverde in difficulty.
Mas and Yates were able to bridge across to Lopez and Quintana with 13km to go, with Valverde around 20 seconds behind as he chased on in the second group on the road.
The quartet out front hit the final climb of the day with just under 8km remaining with an advantage of 33 seconds, but their cohesion was far from certain with Lopez looking to distance Mas and leapfrog him on GC.
Quintana was first to drop off from the leading group with 7.1km remaining, with Yates then losing ground with Mas and Lopez pushing on.
Despite Yates now riding between the leading two and the chasing group by himself, with 4km to go, the Valverde group had struggled to make any inroads with the gap 55 seconds to Lopez and Mas and Yates 12 seconds behind them.
Things then got worse for Spanish team Movistar, with Valverde unable to hold the pace of the group and getting dropped off the back. Quintana slowed to try and help the Spaniard back in, but they were quickly losing ground to the riders up the road.
The gap to the front pair continued to grow with Valverde drifting to 2-23 back and off the overall podium. Likewise for third place Steven Kruijswijk, who sat at just over a minute down. Yates held the gap to front at around 20 seconds.
Mas and Lopez rode well into the final kilometre together, both now knowing they would finish on the overall podium. And they continued to ride side by side into the final 200m, with Mas launching his sprint first as they reached 100m to go.
There was nothing Lopez could do to beat Mas who had the advantage into the final corner, and the Spaniard was able to cross the line to take stage victory and second place overall.
Yates then crossed the line 23 seconds later, all but confirming his overall victory in the Vuelta.
Vuelta a España 2018, stage 20: Andorra. Escaldes-Engordany to Coll de la Gallina. Santuario de Canolich (97.3km)
1 Enric Mas (Esp) Quick-Step Floors, in 2-59-30
2 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana, at same time
3 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, at 23s
4 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 54s
5 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac, at 57s
6 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 1-11
7 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-15
8 David de la Cruz (Esp) Team Sky, at 2-17
9 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team, at 3-10
10 Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar Team, at same time
Overall classification after stage 20
1 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott, in 79-44-30
2 Enric Mas (Esp) Quick-Step Floors, at 1-46
3 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana, at 2-04
4 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 2:54
5 Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar Team, at 4-28
6 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 5-57
7 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac, at 6-07
8 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team, at 6-51
9 Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 11-09
10 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb, at 11-11