The big talking points from stage nine of the Vuelta

Ben King claims an unlikely second win

Ben King wins on stage nine of the Vuelta a España (Sunada)

Just as he did on the race’s first summit finish in Sierra de la Alfaguara on stage four, Ben King was the winner on La Covatilla with a ride that was, if anything, even more impressive.

The American found himself engaged in a battle of ebb and flow with Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), which was so arresting that it stole attention from the GC sort-out that was tentatively happening behind in the peloton.

Using the same tactic that saw him triumph on stage four, King attacked the breakaway group before the official start of the final climb. That gave him a head-start of over 1-30 by the time Mollema attacked all the others on one of the first seriously steep sections at around 8km from the summit.

It nevertheless looked as though Mollema’s superior climbing pedigree would win out, with King losing 30 seconds in just one kilometre while looking in a bad way on the bike. But although the gap continued to fall, to the point where Mollema could see his rival up the road ahead of him, King stubbornly held on, and found a second wind to extend his lead towards the summit.

Ultimately Mollema had to settle for second place – just as he did the last time the Vuelta climbed La Covatilla in 2011 – while King’s dream race gets even better.

Simon Yates takes the red jersey

Simon Yates in red after stage nine of the 2018 Vuelta a España (Sunada)

Following his long spell in pink at the Giro d’Italia earlier this season, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) can now add the red jersey to his collection.

When Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) was dropped 6km from the finish on La Covatilla, it became clear that there would be a new leader of the race at the end of the day. The question was: who would it be?

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was in pole position, as the rider lying second on GC, and looked primed to take it as the peloton neared the summit with no attacks having been made.

However, the 38-year old failed to respond when an elite group of five riders broke clear, putting his inheritance of the red jersey in jeopardy.

Yates too missed the move initially, but recovered well to sprint to the line and finish just nine seconds behind the small, elite group.

At first it was unclear as to who had taken the jersey, but the announcement soon came confirming Yates as the new overall leader – by a mere one second.

That’s a tiny margin to defend, and he’ll have to be wary of Valverde at any sprint for bonus seconds, but Yates can be confident of holding on to the jersey until at least the summit finish at La Camperona on Friday.

Have the race’s strongest riders been revealed?

Nairo Quintana, Ion Izagirre and Miguel Angel Lopez on stage nine of the 2018 Vuelta a España (Sunada)

It’s still early days, but the quintet that broke clear from the group of favourites near the summit looked as though they might be the riders to contest the GC.

If that is to be the case, fans from Colombia ought to be getting excited as riders from their nation made up the majority of the group.

Unsurprisingly, bookie’s favourite Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was among them, as well as Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), who appears to have the same form that saw him podium at the Giro earlier this season, and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-First Drapac), who has evidently overcome the problems that derailed his Tour de France bid.

Joining them were Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), deputising well for an unfit Vincenzo Nibali, and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), who has kept himself in contention despite losing time from an unfortunate mechanical a few days ago.

The likes of Valverde, Yates, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) didn’t lose anywhere near enough time to fall out of contention, having all finished within 30 seconds of the quintet, but all displayed enough weakness to hint that they may lose more time in the coming mountain stages.

Michal Kwiatkowski the day’s biggest loser

Michal Kwiatkowski on stage eight of the 2018 Vuelta a España (Sunada)

One of the intriguing questions of this year’s Vuelta has been whether Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski was capable of sustaining a bid for the GC.

Since finishing 11th at the 2013 Tour de France at the age of just 23, the Pole has been happy to target the Classics while sacrificing himself as a deluxe-domestique at Grand Tours.

However, with no obvious overall contender selected by Sky for this year’s Vuelta, Kwiatkowski found himself the de facto team leader after inheriting the red jersey on stage four, and remained very much in contention prior to today’s stage, in sixth overall at 1-06.

The climb of La Covatilla – the race’s first serious summit finish – proved too much of a challenge for him, however, and he slips down to 15th place on the GC having lost over one minute to most of the other overall favourites.

The consequence might be that David de la Cruz – who also lost time, but not as much as Kwiatkowski – will be promoted to Sky’s GC leader for the rest of the race.

Mate extends lead in the mountains classification

Luis Angel Mate in the KOM jersey at the 2018 Vuelta a España (Sunada)

One of the most familiar sights at this year’s Vuelta has been Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) in his blue-spotted jersey as King of the Mountains getting into the day’s break, and the Spaniard was once again present and out chasing points in that classification.

He claimed the maximum over the first three climbs of the day, hoovering up a total of 18 points.

His lead in that classification now stands at 27 points, and, although he’ll find it difficult to claim any points on the many more summit finishes to come later in the race, it’s looking ever more likely that he might be able to challenge for victory.

Major rivals for the jersey may have emerged in the shape of two of his breakaway companions today. By finishing first and second respectively on La Covatilla, Ben King and Bauke Mollema claimed a handful points that see them move to second and third in the standings.

If either put their mind to it, they could have the superior climbing legs to eventually prise the jersey off Mate’s shoulders.