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The Englishman marked his rivals and attacked when he had his chance Sunday in Asturias. Stage 15 finished on the Lagos de Covadonga climb, where Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) rode clear for the stage win and behind, Yates took time on his immediate rivals.
“I’m always confident in my own ability and I hope to continue like this, but gaps are still small,” said Yates. “I’m not exactly a level above everybody else, we’re all very close.”
Yates leads a close battle by 26 seconds over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 33 seconds over Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and 43 seconds over Miguel Angel López (Astana). Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) is at 1:29 minutes.
A close battle is to be expected going into the third week of the Spanish grand tour. Yates is racing differently than he did in the Giro d’Italia this May when he went hard from day one to distance stronger time trial riders Chris Froome (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
“He will take a lot from what happened in May,” said Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White. “He’s had a pretty calm 13 to 14 days so far, quite different than how we rode the Giro.”
In May, Yates gobbled up time and bonus second with three stage wins. He held the lead for 13 days. Finally, though, the 26-year-old cracked on stage 19 and a more experienced Froome rode away to the Giro title.
In the first two weeks of this Vuelta, Yates has won a stage and along with others, turned the screws to see rivals like Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First-Drapac) drop out of the overall picture.
“He’s naturally a very aggressive rider, and we have to hold him back sometimes,” White said. “The plan at the Giro was to take time when we could because we knew we were going to lose a lot of time to Dumoulin and Froome in the time trial, but in the time trial here [stage 16 Tuesday] we are racing different people. These guys here will all be very similar, so there wasn’t the same importance to take time as there was in May.”
Yates is on a similar level or perhaps even better than his rivals Valverde, Quintana, and López in the time trial. Kruijswijk may be better, but he is further back on GC.
“Maybe we will know more after the time trial,” Yates said. “It’s very possible [the Vuelta could be decided in the time trial]. I have been improving slowly in the time trials, but gaps are very small, so it’s hard to see one rider better than another.
“Of guys really close to me, best time trialist? I think Valverde is very strong. I’m not 100 percent, the smaller guys are at a very similar level. I need to see the parcours before we know for sure.”