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Mas and Movistar’s penultimate stage assault on the red jersey of Remco Evenepoel didn’t pay off on stage 20 on Saturday, but the Mallorcan’s ride across three weeks was a vital mojo-boost and a potential season-saving score.
“If you look one month ago in the Tour de France, Enric was getting dropped on every descent, the confidence in the team was lost,” Movistar domestique Carlos Verona told reporters at the finishline Saturday. “Here we saw we’re back in the battle. Enric saw he’s there.”
Mas went into the Tour earlier this summer aiming at a podium but struggled to get out of first gear. The Mallorcan misfired all through the mountains and crumbled out of contention before abandoning with COVID.
Team boss Eusebio Unzué later expressed dismay at Mas and his perceived lack of leadership qualities.
“At 27, he still doesn’t have the capacity to be a leader,” Unzué said in July. “He is still not prepared to take on the responsibility of a team and of the hopes of an entire nation.”
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Mas responded by taking on Evenepoel in this Vuelta a España and looking the only rider capable of robbing the red jersey from the Belgian’s back.
The Spaniard booked in for a salvatory third second-place at his home race when he closed out the competitive stages 2:05 down on Evenepoel after stage 20.
“After the Tour, I didn’t think that this was possible,” Mas told the media atop the Puerto de Navacerrada on Saturday.
“When I recovered from COVID, I worked with professionals to regain my confidence, I regained my good spirits … I felt I could do well. I came to the Vuelta thinking that if it went well, then perfect, but if not, to enjoy it.”
— Movistar Team (@Movistar_Team) September 10, 2022
No stage 20 upset: ‘There was a lot of desire but no strength’
The Vuelta was primed for an upset Saturday. A tough five-mountain day deep in the Guadarrama range promised ambush and overturn from an ambitious Movistar team as Evenepoel braced for an all-out assault on his GC lead.
Movistar set the trap by putting two riders into the day’s early break, but Mas couldn’t deliver any final drama as attacks rained down in the GC group.
“We really wanted to attack, but honestly, I had a bad day. There was a lot of desire but no strength. It was stage 20. I think we have to be happy,” Mas said.
“It’s not a victory, but it’s an important podium. The happiness will be the same as in the previous two occasions that I was second.”
With three Vuelta second-places and two top-6s at the Tour, Mas is one of the most consistent racers of the GC pack.
Movistar is preparing to center around Mas in the post-Alejandro Valverde era next year. The 27-year-old’s trip to the final Vuelta podium Sunday will score invaluable UCI points that could prevent Movistar falling out of the WorldTour after this crucial relegation season.
Mas may not have brought Movistar its long-awaited red jersey at this Vuelta, but he did bring it a new leader.
“The Tour was just a bad moment, and I think this is very important for us for the season, that he’s going to be our leader again. This is a good experience for everyone in the team,” Verona said. “I think we have to be happy to be this.”