With such a sharp climb at the end of this stage it’s no wonder that a breakaway of 27 riders was allowed to last until the end of the day, with the winner coming from this group. With each G.C. team represented in the break, the peloton was happy to let a 5 minute gap appear before the final climb.
As soon as the break hit the final, steep gradient, Dario Cotaldo and Mathias Frank jumped off the front and went on the attack. Robert Gesink and Leopold König, the climbing heavyweights, sat in the group and awaited their chance, attempting to measure their effort to perfection.
Unfortunately for them, they left it too late. Gesink, gunning for his second stage victory of the race, launched the strongest attempt but he faded around 600m before the line (which doesn’t sound like much, but on these gradients it was a huge distance to cover) and König managed to overtake to roll in 6 seconds behind an overwhelmed Frank, his attack lasting the whole climb as he notched another victory for the retiring IAM cycling team.
Back down the climb, Movistar took charge at the bottom, swarming the front of the peloton and giving Quintana absolute strength in numbers. Before that, Orica-BikeExchange had a big turn on the front, suggesting Chavez and/or Yates were feeling confident and well rested.
Slowly ascending together, it took an attack from Contador to light up the G.C. race, with Chavez and Quintana quick to match his acceleration and get on his back wheel. Froome, however, was distanced and was not within camera shot. It would be this narrative that played out up the climb, as the trio of Contador, Quintana and Chavez tried their hardest to distance the Sky rider, and, at times, Froome looked to be in real trouble.
However, the wiry, wiley Brit managed to dig deep within the final 400 metres to finish with them, forcing no time changes on the G.C. Whilst he himself wasn’t able to attack, he did at least manage to achieve the next big thing and lost no time to the man in red.
At this stage of the race, even just after the second rest day, the legs will be heavy and minds and bodies will be tired. If there were more tier one sprinters in the race then the final 80km run in of downhill to the finish of stage 18 would massively favour a bunch sprint. But, as we have seen already this Vuelta, the calibre of sprinters in the field means that a stage like this, which is undulating and populated with uncategorised ramps and subsequent descents, will be up for grabs to anyone who makes it into a strong break away, likely forming prior to the one and only categorised climb of the day, coming at 70km.
It’s the second longest day in the race, coming in at just over 200km, so a long hard day for the peloton to chase down any breakaway (another thing in their favour). The road is never flat and the first 20kms are lumpy leading to a 10km descent, perfect for the first of many foreseen attacks by riders who have shown good form in the break, but have come away empty handed. Fabio Felline and Jan Bakelants being the prime examples for us. Magnus Cort Nielsen, Scott Thwaits, and Moreno Moser have all also looked good so far, and this type of profile should suit them. Big names like Nikki Terpstra could also be tempted by this and will be powerful assets in forcing the gap to stick.
At 56km there is a category 2 climb, Puerto de Casa del Alto (13.3km, 3.8%), so expect to see another tussle for KOM points between Kenny Elissonde and Omar Fraile, who will also likely feature in the morning break. After this the road descends for the next 40km, broken by a couple of sharp spikes in the profile. If the breakaway group is still together after the climb the resulting ‘lumpy’ descent will be more opportunity to build the gap.
The final part of the stage is, on paper, relativity easy. However the pace will likely be frantic, as the break try to defend their advantage from the chasing peloton, driven by the few teams with a viable sprint option: Etixx Quickstep (Gianni Meersman), BMC (Jean-Pierre Drucker), and Giant Alpecin (Nikias Arndt). Kristian Sbaragil has ridden himself into the race and after Fraile contests the KOM points Dimension Data could focus efforts on him for a bunch sprint.
The road finally flattens out with 4km to go and by this stage it should be clear whether the break will make it or not. In the final 1500 metres there are three roundabout to negotiate, which included both a left and a right hand turn, the final one coming with only 600 metres to go. These disruptions in this final section will make a decent break harder to chase down.
As we said, the tough, undulating nature of the parcours and the lack of top sprinters make this a hard stage for the sprinters’ teams to control. If they do manage to pull it back, then expect a four-way tussle between Meersman, Drucker, Arndt and Sbaragli. However, we feel that a break is a stronger option for tomorrow and the two strongest riders so far have been Fabio Felline and Jan Bakelants, so we pick a two way sprint to the line between these two. The sprinters may well have to wait for Madrid.