Yates withstood repeated attacks from the small group of seven riders first up the first-category Les Praeres summit before the English cyclist opened up a small gap on the final 300 metres of the grueling ascent. Miguel Angel Lopez and Alejandro Valverde crossed seconds later, followed shortly by Thibaut Pinot and Nairo Quintana.
“I chose my moment really well at the very final,” Yates said. “I didn’t look back until it flattened up a bit. I am really happy for the win. I gave it all I could at the end.”
Yates, riding for Michelton-Scott, finished the 171-kilometres stage in nearly four-and-a-half hours and reclaimed the red jersey that he wore from stages nine to 11.
Valverde is second overall at 20 seconds behind, followed by Movistar team-mate Quintana at 25 seconds back. Lopez is fourth, 47 seconds off the pace.
In May, Yates led the Giro d’Italia for 13 days before finally finishing over an hour behind winner Chris Froome.
Jesus Herrada led the Vuelta for the previous two days. Herrada faded fast midway through the stage’s five climbs when Vincenzo Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida team picked up the pace and scattered the peloton.
Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky broke away with five other riders early in the stage and went all alone until caught before the last ascent.
Team Sky’s Dylan van Baarle had been forced to abandon the race ahead of yesterday’s start after suffering a groin injury in a crash following the finish of stage 12, when he had placed second.
The three-week race stays in the northern Picos de Europa mountains today. The 178km ride starting in Ribera de Arriba finishes atop the beyond-category Lagos de Covadonga, which is considered an iconic Vuelta summit. “Tomorrow could be decisive,” Valverde said. “It is a hard stage, with a different ascent from today, and it is the last of three days in the mountains. So anything can happen.”
The Grand Tour ends in Madrid next weekend.