UAE Team Emirates rider Sven Bystrom was left with “mixed feelings” after producing a remarkable ride but falling agonisingly short of victory on Stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday.
On a flat 186.1-kilometre stage from Ejea de los Caballeros to Lleida catered to sprinters, Bystrom formed part of an early breakaway with Lotto-Soudal rider – and eventual stage winner – Jelle Wallays and Jesse Bol of Burgos-BH.
After biding their time back in the peloton, the sprinters, led by world champion Peter Sagan, started to hunt down the breakaway in the final kilometres, but ultimately left it too late as Sagan settled for third behind Wallays and Bystrom.
The second-place finish by Bystrom was the first podium for UAE Team Emirates at the 2018 Vuelta, although the Norwegian was naturally deflated after missing out on the stage victory by a matter of metres.
"A few mixed feelings right now," Bystrom, 26, told The National at the UAE Team Emirates hotel in Lleida. "A little disappointed to settle for second, but for sure I'm happy to be up there at the front and fight for the win.
“It’s always a goal to be there in the final [part of the stage] and fighting for the win, but still … as I said, it’s mixed feelings.”
While breakaways, more often than not, are closed down by the chasing peloton – particularly on flat stages – Bystrom flawlessly executed the team’s strategy to ensure his place on the podium.
“It was a really tactical race today,” he said. “We knew we had to go quite easy in the first part to play a little bit with the peloton. If we went too hard in the first part, for sure we would have no energy in the final. So we went quite easy and we had two minutes [as a lead].
“Then we all decided in the front to go full gas for the last 50km. We knew also there would be a tailwind and a lot of roundabouts and turns in the final so it would be hard for the peloton to catch up the time on us. So that was our tactic and it worked out pretty well.
“The only thing was the last 2km when he [Wallays] sat up and I had to take the front. But that’s cycling – you have to be strong and tactically smart.”
After a gruelling effort on Stage 18, not to mention the previous 17 stages over the past nearly three weeks of racing, one might expect Bystrom and his UAE Team Emirates colleagues to be riding on decreasing energy levels.
“I felt really good actually,” the Norwegian said. “My legs are feeling great. It’s funny how you actually feel better and better even though we are now into the third week. It’s really weird – I have the best feeling this week after two weeks of suffering!”
Simon Yates of Mitchelton-Scott retained the general classification’s red jersey, with the Briton holding a 25-second advantage over Spanish Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde heading into the Vuelta’s grand finale in the Pyrenees on Friday and Saturday.
Friday’s Stage 19 sets off from Lleida and heads north to Andorra as the route takes a gradual climb for 154.4km. A summit finish awaits the riders at the end of the stage with a 17.5km climb.
Quick to move on from the mixed feelings of Thursday, Bystrom turns his focus to Friday.
“Tomorrow is a chance again,” he said. “It will be quite a different finish in Andorra but always we will fight for the win.”