There are a couple of riders who are always mentioned when mulling over the key favourites to win one of cycling's three biggest stage races. Perhaps it’s a certain 24-year-old prodigy from UAE Team Emirates with a little tuft of hair sticking out of his white helmet? Or maybe it’s a former ski-jumper clad in the yellow and black of Jumbo-Visma? What about the Welsh 2018 Tour de France winner who is searching for another taste of glory in the twilight years of his career? Or the plucky, confident 22-year-old who is the newly-crowned World Champion?
Whoever might spring to mind, for some reason, it’s rarely the tall, gangly figure of Enric Mas, Movistar’s current greatest hope to stand on the top step of a Grand Tour podium next season. Mas never has the top bill on a list of favourites, despite finishing second in the Vuelta a España in 2018, and for the last two years, and his commendable fifth place in the Tour de France in 2020, but why?
Maybe it’s that he, for so long, has ridden in the shadow cast by the figure of Alejandro Valverde, the Grand Tour veteran who right until his retirement at the end of 2022, served as Movistar’s star, their leading light, their main character. Or maybe it’s Mas’s demeanour: he’s quiet and unassuming, rarely making grand gestures to the camera or demanding the spotlight. The Spaniard can often merge into the background, making up the podium spots but not donning the red jersey, or the pink, or the yellow. In 2023, though, Mas plans to stand out.
Enric Mas climbing with Remco Evenepoel, Primož Roglič and Carlos Rodriguez on stage eight of the 2022 Vuelta a España (Image: Charly Lopez/ASO)
“I’m hungry to go one step further,” Mas says, speaking in his off-season. “I want to win one Grand Tour and I hope that I can be there in the Tour and the Vuelta, as well as at the beginning of the season.” Mas speaks with a fresh enthusiasm, seemingly keen to put across the seriousness of his ambitions. He looks back on 2022 with some level of satisfaction: second in his home Grand Tour is an impressive feat, yet Mas can still pinpoint moments in that Vuelta where he thinks he let the victory slip out of his grasp.
“Maybe I could have been better on Sierra Nevada,” he says, looking back on stage 15 of the race. This comment surprises me somewhat, it was on that day which Mas gained time on all of his rivals in the general classification, finishing second on the stage and 36 seconds ahead of the eventual race winner, Remco Evenepoel. For Mas, he believes he could have done more. “Maybe it wasn’t enough that day, but I’ll never know,” he continues. ”I’m second and I have to be happy, because in the Tour de France I was not so good.”
At the 2022 Tour de France, Mas suffered from Covid-19 which meant he had to leave the race midway through, but before that he struggled with his descending technique and confidence following a swathe of crashes earlier in the season. His ability to bounce back a few weeks later and finish second in the Vuelta is a testament to the 27-year-old’s dogged determination to constantly improve.
“I have to work a lot on my time trial and downhill,” Mas explains. “But while I know I have to work, I have to keep enjoying it too, because that’s the most important thing.”
He doesn’t say it explicitly, but it seems that something which would help Mas enjoy racing a little bit more is if he was rewarded for his efforts more often with a first place finish. The key thing in his way of this at the Vuelta this year, was a fiery and attacking Remco Evenepoel. The young Belgian impressed the cycling world when he took his first Grand Tour victory in only his fourth year as a professional bike rider.
“He’s a super rider,” says Mas. “Two weeks after the Vuelta he won the Worlds, I think we’re going to have Remco for a lot of years. I don’t know if he’ll go to the Giro or the Tour next year. He’s still young.”
Evenepoel’s success at just 22 years old has often caused speculation on how long the Quick Step Alpha-Vinyl rider’s career can continue. Will he burn out? Is he doing too much, too soon? Five years Evenepoel’s senior, I’m interested to find out what Mas thinks of his younger rival.
“Alejandro Valverde won everything and he’s still riding his bike like it’s the first time,” Mas points out. “[Remco] needs to keep enjoying it like it’s his first race, he has to do it like that.”
Enric Mas after stage 15 of the Vuelta a España (Image: Tim de Waele/Getty)
Enjoyment is clearly something that Mas sees as a key factor to success when it comes to bike racing, he mentions it multiple times in our interview and explains that this is the reason why he’s chosen to stay with Movistar until 2025. “It’s like a family,” he says. “It’s a Spanish team and I feel good here.” Mas notes that it’s training with his teammates which keeps him motivated throughout the winter, explaining that they have a group who constantly ride together.
In 2023, Mas wants to be the leader for his team in the Grand Tours, and it’s likely he’ll have an unchallenged shot at that with Valverde retiring this year. For Mas, though, he sees Valverde leaving the team as a loss, rather than an opportunity. “I was really sad because I’ll never have to have him back next to me in the race again. In the races and at the hotel, it was always Valverde helping me a lot with everything,” Mas says. “But he’ll stay doing a role in the team, I don’t know what yet, but I’ll still see him next year.”
Valverde potentially taking a job as a sports director or mentor figure in Movistar next year is something that Mas argues could be a huge benefit to the team’s performance. “I think it’s going to be really good for us if he’s on the radio to speak with us, to know what we have to do in Liège, for example, he won that four times. In Grand Tours too, he has a lot of experience.”
Whether his former-teammate Valverde is in the team car or not, Mas appears to be under no illusions that next season is going to be an easy one. He mentions that the style of racing is changing, forcing people to ride more aggressively. “In some races, with 80km to go, it’s already done, cycling is different to last year. I think it will be like this in the future, too. You have to train differently now because before it was everything on the last climb but now you have to be ready two and a half hours before the finish.”
Mas notes that this also means that Movistar will race differently in 2023, hoping to take advantage of scrappier, more exciting racing. “In the last race of the season, we took responsibility from the bunch and I think this, for us, is really good. It gave me more confidence because the team took responsibility for the race, we need to do that more next year.”
The Spaniard is referencing Il Lombardia, a race in which he finished a close second to Tadej Pogačar. Only a few weeks before that, he beat Pogačar in the Giro dell’Emilia, another tough one-day race. “That victory gave me confidence that it's not impossible [to beat Pogačar]. I always say I love Liège, I love San Sebastian and I love Lombardia. I dream one day to win one of these races.”
With his talent for the one-day races and stage races, next season is going to be another busy one for Enric Mas. Out of all his ambitions and hopes for the future, he says there is one race which would be the most important for him to take victory in: the Tour de France. “It’s the race,” he smiles.
He might not start as the favourite, but perhaps it will be that after so many second places, so many close calls, 2023 will be the year that modest and humble Enric Mas reaches the top step of the podium. And maybe, just maybe, it will be in the race where it matters the most.