Stage 18 came together for a sprint, as we’d predicted (who hadn’t?). It wasn’t quite the sprint that the bookies’ had thought, though, with Gianni Meersman fading in the last moments. Evidently everyone is suffering this late in the season, and that opened the door for some chancy riders. Step forward Magnus Cort Nielsen, who got the result he’d been looking for all Vuelta by outsprinting everyone else — including, notably, a speeding Nikias Arndt, who crept in in second. Jean-Pierre Drucker rounded off the podium, making it a clean sweep for the best of the second-tier sprinters. There were, of course, no changes in the G.C., and no upsets or over-expenditures of energy. That puts everyone on equal footing ahead of the much-hyped time trial.
It’s a decently long time trial with just the one major ascent at around the 10km mark to take on. But by no means is this a climbers’ time trial, which is why Quintana has been working so hard to get up a big lead over Froome ahead of it. Historically, though, Quintana doesn’t do as badly in time trials as people seem ready to credit him, and he lost only a little over 2 and a half minutes that time he crashed over his handlebars in the 2014 Vuelta, shortly before pulling out of the tour altogether. That means 3:37 is already looking like an insurmountable obstacle for Froome’s G.C. campaign.
That does not mean, however, that Chris Froome is not the favourite here. Given his recent form, his current goals, and his outstanding skills within this discipline, we simply have to consider him as the strongest candidate for a stage win here. The question for Froome, and for Sky, though, will be just how much time he can take on his rivals. Movistar are looking good for this though, and Quintana can expect a useful report on the course from perhaps the second best favourite for the stage, Jonathan Castroviejo. After his third place in the Olympic time trial, there’s no doubt that Castroviejo’s come into TT form at the right time of year to post a really strong time here. Movistar’s third option here is Alejandro Valverde, who always tends to post a decent, but maybe not stage-winning, time trial. Expect him to be in the top ten, or, at worst, close.
Other contenders here include Giant’s Tobias Ludvigsson, who is a consistently strong time trial rider, Luis Leon Sánchez, Leo König, and Yves Lampaert. But the other G.C. riders will have to post something special here to either hold onto their placings or to advance ever higher. Alberto Contador shouldn’t lose time here, at least not to anyone other than Froome and Quintana. This will be harder for riders like Chaves and Yates, who might not be able to hold the requisite tempo for a high placing.
For an interesting outsider, look to Jean-Christophe Péraud, whose astonishing time trial performances have previously helped him hit the overall podium in the Tour de France. He’s not ridden well this tour, but that’s not been expected of him. There’s a chance he may well pull out a strong result, and, with the bookies putting him at 150/1, he could be a big surprise. We’d also love to see Svein Tuft pull out a strong result. He’s always ridden well in TTs, but he’s more of a stalwart of the team time trial than he is a solo performer. However, he’s a powerful rider, and the more we see of him in Orica’s Backstage Pass series, the more we want to see him pull out a big result.
For us, these are easy. We’re going with Chris Froome for the stage win, and Jonathan Castroviejo as runner up. Our big outsider will be Jean-Christophe Péraud, though there’s a chance he’ll just roll in. The big question will be how much time Froome can take on Quintana, and that should make this TT a great watch.