Simon Yates has identified Julian Alaphilippe as the man to beat in Sunday’s elite men’s race at the UCI Road Cycling World Championships in Innsbruck.
La Vuelta winner Yates will race alongside twin brother Adam in Great Britain’s eight-member team, with both considered strong contenders on a challenging 258.5km route which suits their climbing strengths.
But many eyes are on the powerful French team, which includes Alaphilippe – winner of the King of the Mountains classification in this year’s Tour de France – as well as the likes of Romain Bardet, Rudy Molard, Warren Barguil, Thibaut Pinot and Tony Gallopin.
“I think Alaphilippe is the main favourite, you have to look at him,” Simon said.
“He’s in very good form, he’s won many good races and he’s backed by a very good team, for sure the strongest team. They have many cards to play so it’s not just him.”
Simon also picked out Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde while Adam threw the net wider, saying he would not rule out reigning world champion Peter Sagan winning a fourth rainbow jersey in a row despite a course most think is too difficult for the Slovakian – particularly the brutal 28 per cent gradients of the final climb.
“You can’t count him out, can you?” he said. “You saw in the Rio Olympics when Greg Van Avermaet won. Everyone said it was too hard and then a classics guy pulled out the win.
“We all know how good (Alaphilippe) is uphill and downhill, but I don’t think there’s any one favourite.”
The 26-year-old Bury racer, whose success was all but guaranteed as he headed into Sunday’s largely processional final stage into Madrid with a one minute and 46 seconds lead, avoided any late mishaps to land his first Grand Tour title.
Victory for the Mitchelton-Scott rider followed success for Chris Froome at the Giro d’Italia and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France to round off an unprecedented year for British cycling.
Indeed, it was a moment for the history books, with the three titles having never before been held by three riders from the same country.
Yates said: “It’s astonishing really. Growing up I was so accustomed to seeing the French, Italian and Spanish riders lead the way, so for myself, Chris and Geraint to all win a Grand Tour in the same year just shows how far the sport has come in this country.”
Froome, whose Tour-Vuelta double last year means British riders have now won five Grand Tours in a row, paid tribute to Yates’ achievement, saying: “Simon has looked so strong over the last three weeks and it’s great to see him take home the maillot rojo. It’s been a perfect year for British riders.”
Elia Viviani out-sprinted Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to win the 21st stage after a flat 100.9 kilometre ride from Alcorcon on Sunday, while Yates retained his advantage over Spain’s Enric Mas, Viviani’s team-mate at Quick-Step Floors, in the final General Classification standings.
And the day belonged firmly to the man in red, who has recovered from the disappointment of running out of gas at the Giro after holding the race leader’s pink jersey for 13 days to triumph in Spain.
Those punishing three weeks may have ended in heartache, but they proved Yates, who won the young rider classification at last year’s Tour de France, had what it takes to contend in Grand Tours – and he delivered at the very next opportunity.
Sports Minister Tracey Crouch said: “Simon Yates’s brilliant victory in the Vuelta is the latest success in a phenomenal year for British Cycling, following on from Froome winning the Giro d’Italia and Thomas the Tour de France.
“It is testament to the talent development programme of British Cycling, backed by National Lottery cash, that so many of our riders have become the world-leading cyclists that they are today. Their success is helping to encourage many more people get on their bikes and get active.”
Simon Yates said it is “finally sinking in” that he is set to complete a British grand slam of Grand Tours in 2018 after extending his lead in the penultimate stage of La Vuelta.
The Bury racer finished third in Andorra on Saturday, and heads into Sunday’s largely processional final stage into Madrid with a one minute and 46 seconds advantage over the 20th stage winner, Enric Mas.
When it is completed, the Mitchelton-Scott rider will join Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas in a British threesome holding all three of the sport’s major tour titles at the same time, with Thomas having added the Tour de France to Froome’s Giro d’Italia.
Yates told his team’s official website: “Finally. I think it’s still sinking in. I’m incredibly proud, of the team also. They have carried me through this entire three weeks. It’s the first Grand Tour for the team and it’s just unbelievable.
“On the last climb I was OK. I was really at my limit and. I just tried to ride to my own rhythm and thankfully it was enough.
“I feel much better now that we have finished. It was a really crazy day. I have got to thank my team because everybody really stepped up, even the big guys who you didn’t expect to be there on the climbs.”
The decisive move which all but won Yates the title occurred 17km from the finish, when he launched a break to reel in the leading pair of Mas and Nairo Quintana.
Yates’ nearest rival Ernesto Valverde, who started the day one minute and 28 seconds adrift, could not match the Briton and fell away, eventually finishing three minutes behind his rival and down in fifth place overall.
As Quintana dropped back in a vain bid to coax something more from his ailing Movistar rival, Mas and Lopez went clear to contest the stage in a sprint finish, with Yates happy to remain alone in third.
Yates would eventually finish 23 seconds behind the top two, with Mas (Quick-Step Floors) just edging his Astana rival on the line.
His win helped lift Mas to second place in the standings – but not close enough to challenge Yates.