Unsurprisingly, there was no change in the top spots of the G.C. after stage 16, with it all coming together for the predicted bunch sprint. In the end, favourite for the win Gianni Meersman got mobbed, and it was BMC’s Jempy Drucker who nabbed it by sprinting off the head of the pack from a long way back. It was a great performance, but it also showed how tired everyone’s getting towards the end of this tour, and indeed this season. Both our podium picks of Sbaragli and Van Genechten were a little off the pace, and there weren’t really many lines resembling lead-out trains of which to speak. The favourites for the overall classification will, however, have been grateful for something like a day off, following from the horrendously difficult day in the mountains on stage 15, and the farcical nature of the ensuing debates over whether 90 riders should have been disqualified. It’s notable, though, that Fabio Felline, who was amongst the only sprinters who didn’t finish 50 minutes behind the leaders on stage 15, didn’t contest the sprint here, and instead rolled across the line in 49th.
Here we go again, then. It’s climbing from kilometre 10 on stage 18, and it’s a cat 2 that awaits the riders. This is a classic springboard for a strong early break, and, with mostly climbing to come for the 90km after the early descent, we’d expect a big and strong group to go. However, the G.C. men, — especially team Sky — will be twitchy after the bizarre events of stage 15, so there could be consensus amongst the G.C. men to work hard until only the right kind of break goes. At any rate, whomever does end up in the break will have a decent chance of staying away.
With plenty of categorized climbing today, you wouldn’t bet against Kenny Elissonde and Omar Fraile getting into the break again. Both men are extremely committed to the polka dot contest, and it’s still a very close thing — Fraile trails Elissonde by a mere 8 points. But it’s the third-placed rider in the polka dots contest we’ll want to look out for. Robert Gesink must surely fancy his chances here, given his great results out of early breaks so far — 2nd and 1st. Could he possibly strike out on the final climb from a break one more time this Vuelta? Given the amount of tired legs in both the peloton and the breakaways, if he’s feeling at all good then he has a great chance here. He climbed phenomenally well, where some of the biggest names in the peloton suffered, and he can’t be overlooked as a serious stage contender here. Gesink was also amongst the 90 riders who finished over 50 minutes down on the hectic stage 15, which means he’ll be better rested than some of the big climbers coming into this stage.
There are others to look out for in terms of a breakaway, and we’d bet that Jan Bakelants will try his luck again, and it could be another chance for Luis Leon Sánchez, provided he’s not needed to guard Scarponi. A strong climber like Igor Silin, who narrowly missed out the other day, could also have a go. But there is also the possibility that the nervous G.C. teams in the peloton will hold the gap at a manageable distance (but it’ll be hard), and will take the win on the final climb. If that’s the case, then it’ll be another good day for Quintana. Chris Froome has said in interviews he plans to attack at every opportunity from now on, and this is one hell of an opportunity. However, we just can’t see him getting a gap on Quintana, but we can see it happening the other way around. It’s no longer likely that Froome will be too busy staring down Quintana to chase attacks from Chaves and Contador — they’re now just too close on G.C. to be discounted. For that reason, if the favourites get past the breakaway on the climb, then we’ll see Froome and Quintana rise up first. And if that happens, Quintana is the favourite to take the stage.
Picks: To win, Nairo Quintana. For an outsider, from the break, Robert Gesink.