Unless Enric Mas can channel the spirit, verve and finishing power of his Movistar teammate and four-time Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Alejandro Valverde and win Saturday’s penultimate, Liège-style stage of the Vuelta a España around the Galician town of Mos, it looks certain that the race will end without a home rider tasting victory for the first time since 1996.
Back then, when the Italians were winning stages for fun and Swiss trio Tony Rominger, Alex Zülle and Laurent Dufaux filled the podium, Spain’s winless Vuelta was a blip, as the country’s cycling scene was in rude health. Although Spanish fans had just waved a surprise adios to five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Induráin, who quit the race and, it soon turned out, the sport on the road to Lagos de Covadonga, there was plenty of reason for optimism.
In ONCE, Banesto and Kelme, Spain had three very competitive teams, while Euskadi were on the way up too. The national calendar was busy as well. Almost every region had its own week-long stage, some had two or three, while the amateur/under-23 scene was vibrant, especially in the Basque Country, where almost every budding Spanish talent had to go and prove themselves if they wanted to have a chance of stepping up to the pro ranks.
On the face of it, the situation now seems very different, less rosy. Spain has just a single WorldTour team, Movistar keeping alive the flame lit by Reynolds in the 1980s and carried subsequently by the likes of Banesto and Caisse d’Épargne. The Spanish calendar has been decimated, and other sports have become more popular among the younger generation, which has slowed the conveyor belt of talent into the peloton.
The fact that no Spanish rider has won a stage at any of the grand tours this year, the first time this has happened since all three of them have featured on the calendar, adds to the sense that Spanish cycling is in the doldrums. This feeling is compounded by the fact that many of the country’s leading riders are either in or approaching the veteran category, Valverde most obviously, but also Luis León Sánchez, the Izagirre brothers, Pello Bilbao and Mikel Landa.
However, all that said, I’m ending this Vuelta with a sense of real optimism for Spanish cycling. Enric Mas is one significant reason for that. Even if he doesn’t manage to hang on to second place on GC over the final weekend, he looks a better, more competitive, more threatening grand tour racer than he was when he finished runner-up to Simon Yates in the 2018 edition.
Like every other rider who has come up against the doubled-headed Slovenian steamroller of Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar in the last couple of years, he’s been second best. But he’s been aggressive, judged his efforts well and looks much more like a potential grand tour winner.
Further down the standings, Trek-Segafredo’s Juan Pedro López has fought his way up to the fringes of the top 10 in only his second grand tour. Clearly a very talented climber, at 24 he’s another good prospect. The three pro conti teams, Burgos-BH, Caja Rural and Euskaltel-Euskadi, have distinguished themselves too.
But the biggest reason for Spanish optimism during the past three weeks has been triggered not by events at the Vuelta, but on French roads at the Tour de l’Avenir. On the final stage, Ineos Grenadier Carlos Rodríguez produced a stunning ride to the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard that almost resulted in him taking the stage and the overall title in one great coup. Ultimately, he finished seven seconds down on Norwegian winner Tobias Johannessen.
Fourth at the Ruta del Sol, consistent in his support for his leaders at the Critérium du Dauphiné and only 20 years old, he’s definitely one to keep an eye on, starting this week at the Tour of Britain.
Then there’s el fenómeno, Juan Ayuso, born in Barcelona, brought up in Atlanta (USA) and Xàbia (Alicante) and signed by UAE Team Emirate until the end of 2025. Set to turn 19 in the middle of this month, he looks more rounded than climbing specialist Rodríguez and is already being hailed as Spain’s next big grand tour prospect.
Winner of the Spanish junior road title at 16, he retained it the following year and doubled up in the time trial. Riding for the Italian Colpack-Ballan U23 team, he finished top 10 at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali won by Jonas Vingegaard in March, and has subsequently stormed through the under-23 calendar, where the highlight was his victory in the Baby Giro, his final race for Colpack. Winner of three stages, he finished the race almost three minutes clear of runner-up Johannessen, taking the points, mountains and youth classification for good measure.
Outsprinted by Luis León Sánchez for the win at the GP Ordizia in late July, he was then a top-20 finisher on his WorldTour debut at the San Sebastian Classic. Unfortunately, a crash on the fourth stage of the Tour de l’Avenir prevented a reprise with his Baby Giro battle with Johannessen and of the opportunity to see what havoc he might have wreaked in the mountains with Spain teammate Rodríguez. Having followed the growing trend and made the jump from the junior ranks straight into the WorldTour, Ayuso’s next target is the European Under-23 Championships in Trento later this month.
Ultimately, while Spain may have missed out in this Vuelta and is facing the prospect of seeing some of its standard-bearers retire, Enric Mas doesn’t look like he’ll be out there on his own for long. Reinforcements are coming, and fast!
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