MADRID (Reuters) - Simon Yates won the Vuelta a Espana title on Sunday to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of British Grand Tour winners in 2018.
Yates, 26, successfully defended his lead of one minute 46 seconds over second-placed Enric Mas of Spain in the final stage of the 21-day race, a mostly processional 100.9km ride through Madrid, where Italian Elia Viviani took a third stage win of this year's Vuelta by pipping Peter Sagan in a bunch sprint.
Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez finished third overall, two minutes four seconds behind.
Yates delivered a first Grand Tour victory for the Australian-owned Mitchelton-Scott team and completed a cycle of British victories in the three Grand Tours this year after Chris Froome won the Giro d'Italia in May and Geraint Thomas captured the Tour de France in July.
"It's astonishing really," Yates told the official website of British Cycling https://www.britishcycling.org.uk.
"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. It hasn't happened by accident and I'm so thankful to everybody who has been part of the journey."
2017 Vuelta winner Froome, who like Thomas sat out the final Grand Tour of the year in order to race the Tour of Britain, added: "Simon has looked so strong over the last three weeks and it's great to see him take home the red jersey. It's been a perfect year for British riders."
Yates, who counted on the support of twin brother Adam in his team, became the virtual winner of the Vuelta after finishing third in Saturday's penultimate stage in the mountains of Andorra, making up for his collapse towards the end of the Giro after wearing the pink jersey in 13 stages.
"I want to thank my team and my family. I have had some difficult times in the last few years and they were always there," added Yates, who was subject to a four-month ban in 2016 for testing positive for the drug terbutaline which he uses to treat his asthma.
His then team Orica-GreenEdge said they were responsible for an administrative error in not applying for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the substance.
Throughout the Vuelta, Yates seemed eager to learn from his harrowing experience in stage 19 at the Giro, when he tumbled from top of the standings down to 17th after losing 38 minutes on the climb up the Colle delle Finestre.
He consistently used conservative tactics in Spain, even happily surrendering the red jersey to Jesus Herrada for two days mid-race.
Yates reclaimed his lead in emphatic fashion, though, storming to victory on stage 14 with a stunning late attack to take out Colombian pairing Miguel Angel Lopez and Nairo Quintana towards the top of the Les Praeres mountain.
He enjoyed only a slender lead of only 25 seconds over 2009 champion and home favourite Alejandro Valverde heading into the decisive weekend in Andorra but used his intimate knowledge of the terrain there to gain a minute over the Spaniard, cementing his hold on the red jersey.
"It's been an unbelievable day. I really just enjoyed the moment, I don't know what else you can do in those situations," Yates added.
"When I turned professional I signed with the team and we had a really big ambition to win a Grand Tour and now we've achieved that. I put the hard work in, I persisted with the training and everything else that goes with it and now we're here."
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)