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Yates tightens grip on Vuelta as Valverde falls behind

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MADRID (Reuters) – Simon Yates impressively extended his lead over Alejandro Valverde in the battle for the Vuelta a Espana on Friday after stage 19 of the race was won by Thibaut Pinot.

With two days remaining Yates leads by one minute and 38 seconds after taking more than a minute out of the Spaniard.

French rider Pinot attacked Yates near the top of the summit finish at the end of the 154 km stage from Lleida in Catalonia to Andorra’s Naturlandia.

However, Yates is now a small step away from completing a sweep of this year’s Grand Tours by British riders after Chris Froome’s Giro d’Italia win and Geraint Thomas’s victory at the Tour de France.

The Mitchelton-Scott rider stormed to the front with 10km to go and Movistar’s struggling veteran Valverde could not respond.

Saturday’s decisive stage in Andorra features 4,000 metres of climbing, however, so the job is not complete.

“I’m very wary of tomorrow. I’ll try to stay focussed now and of course enjoy the day, but really it’s not over until it’s over,” Yates said.

“I felt good. I felt good myself when I tried. The team did a fantastic job again.”

Pinot said Yates has timed his attack well.

“I think (Yates) knows the climb really well, so he knew exactly where to go and he knew what he was doing,” he said.

“He knew that Alejandro Valverde wasn’t that good so it was a good moment.”

Yates, who enjoyed two weeks in pink at the Giro in May but eventually cracked in the final week, looks far stronger this time around and the 26-year-old is perfectly placed to secure his first grand tour victory.

Benefiting from his intimate knowledge of the terrain, having spent most of his professional career in Andorra, Yates earned a six second time bonus after conquering the 2,025 metre high Coll de la Rabassa.

Valverde lost time on the climb, while Steven Kruijswijk, who finished third in the stage, moves third in the general classification, one minute and 50 seconds down on Yates.

“We took a lot of time back and tomorrow can be a different story with a lot of climbs coming after each other. I think we can expect Movistar to drop a big attack,” added Kruijswijk.

(Reporting by Rik Sharma, additional reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Christian Radnedge)

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