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At the summit of Monte Oiz, the finish of stage 17 of the 2018 Vuelta a España, the riders found themselves climbing into the fog. With the sun hiding behind clouds, it was hard to see even a handful of metres before you.
The people standing behind the finish line were expecting the red shadow of Simon Yates to materialise out of the fog first, or maybe the green of Alejandro Valverde. Instead, it was the white glare of Enric Mas’ grinning teeth that broke through the grey.
The young Spaniard was the best among the GC contenders who had been battling head-on during the stage-ending climb; a climb that saw contenders like Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and LottoNL-Jumbo’s Steven Kruijswijk slip out of contention. Mas was the one to put in the final attack that saw Simon Yates crack for the first time in this Vuelta and Alejandro Valverde struggle to keep up.
At the time of writing, Mas sits third overall in the Spanish Grand Tour with only three stages to go. Can he hold on to that position as the race heads through the mountains of Andorra and over to Madrid? (Update: Mas went on to win stage 20, moving him into second overall. He finished the Vuelta in the same position.)
Cycling on an island
Enric Mas was born in Artá, a small town on the island of Majorca. He was a keen basketball player until age 11, when he accepted an invitation from a friend to go on a ride.
“He was always insisting I should join him on one on his training rides, and I refused saying it was too boring… Until I actually gave it a try and fell in love with the bike,” Mas said. “At first I didn’t even think of competing, but then we heard there were some races and began taking part in them.”
Mas’ cousin, Toni Colom, was a relevant influence on his early cycling years. Colom was a professional cyclist from 1999 to 2009, racing for teams like Illes Balears or Astana (he retired in 2009 after receiving a two-year ban for a positive EPO test). Colom acted as a coach and advisor for Mas, guiding his steps through the junior ranks (including a brief stint on the track) until Mas later joined the Fundación Contador — Alberto Contador’s youth team.
A rare case of precociousness
At age 16, Enric Mas was recruited by Castillo de Onda, one of the best junior teams in the Spanish scene whose manager, José Cabedo, is present at this Vuelta as a DS for the modest Spanish Pro Continental outfit Burgos BH.
The impressive physical potential of Mas and his positive approach to racing were on show when the Spanish national junior team brought him to the Xanisteban Saria, a tough amateur race in the Basque Country for riders under 26. There he faced Arkaitz Durán, a former professional cyclist with Saunier Duval who was smashing the field in every race he participated in.
“They told me he was very strong and I told myself: ‘He sure isn’t that strong’,” Mas said. “I was just a first-year junior rider, but I thought I was God”.
Durán went on to win the race with an impressive solo performance. In the main bunch, Mas survived every split and attacked with 10 kilometres to go, finishing in an astounding second place.
After that exhibition, the Fundación Contador brought Mas on board.
Poached by QuickStep
Mas’ stint at Contador’s team delivered a solid progression, but is not remembered fondly by either party. Joxean Fernández ‘Matxin’, current team manager at UAE Team Emirates, was acting as head of scouting for QuickStep Floors at the time, and called Mas out of the blue in the summer of his first under-23 year. He offered the youngster a spot at QuickStep Floors’ development team, Klein Constantia.
“I was having dinner with some girl friends in Majorca and my phone rang,” Mas recalls. “Straight away I knew I had to accept the proposal, because it was one of those trains that only passes once.”
The break-up with Fundación Contador was a bit tense. Fran Contador, brother of Alberto, stopped being Mas’ agent as a result. Yet no one can say it was a bad career move.
The rider from Artá had his most prolific season to date in 2016 in Klein Constantia’s colours, winning two stage races: the Volta ao Alentejo and the Tour de Savoie – Mont Blanc. He only lost the prestigious Giro della Valle d’Aosta to BMC’s Kilian Frankiny because of some unfortunate cramps in the last kilometre of the second-to-last stage.
Along the way he created strong bonds with then-teammates like Bahrain-Merida’s Iván García Cortina, with whom he used to room and watch cycling races every night until they both fell asleep.
While the relationship between Mas and Contador’s junior team took a hit when Mas left, Contador’s admiration for Mas stayed strong. The Spanish champion brought Mas to a Tinkoff-Saxo training camp back in 2015; a dream come true for Mas, who has stated he adored Contador’s “racing style and his mindset.”
Fast-forward to September 2017 and Alberto Contador is on his way to the final victory of his career, atop the legendary Angliru. As Contador made his way up the road, solo, he came across two up-and-coming Spaniards from an earlier break: Mas and Marc Soler. Soler tried to follow Contador’s wheel, while Mas — in his first season with QuickStep Floors — began pulling for his idol in what was a dream performance. At the finish line, Contador declared Mas was his “successor.”
Some people in the Quick-Step Floors camp say Contador simply “put his name on the winning horse,” whereas other observers see a case of mutual appreciation. Contador, indeed, has not been shy to praise Mas’ performance in the Spanish media and pose with him for pictures. Mas gladly accepts the role of heir apparent.
Staying grounded while flying high
Since storming into contention at the 2018 Vuelta, Enric Mas has gained prominence in the Spanish media. He is interviewed both before and after every stage. He is always smiling and always cheerful, often answering questions with a “we’ll see”, “I have to keep my feet on the ground” or “I’ll be happy with a top 10”.
But since his performance on Monte Oiz, his tune has changed. He’s now saying that, even before the Vuelta began, he considered the final podium “feasible”. He’s now also talking openly about “trying to win it.”
It’s clear the future is bright for this 23-year-old from Majorca. In fact, judging by his performance at the Vuelta, that future appears to be here already.
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF