Like a yoyo, Chris Froome’s Vuelta a Espana crown looks a little more assured once again. Froome took back 21 seconds on Vincenzo Nibali and gained time on almost all except Fabio Aru who is 6.33mins adrift anyway. Sander Armee took a third stage win for Lotto Soudal ahead of Alexey Lutsenko and Giovanni Visconti.
Stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana had the potential to result in fireworks with four climbs in 65km including the category 3 rise to the finish line. But any potential GC fireworks could easily come after a breakaway had already mopped up the stage honours, and a large breakaway group put their hands up to achieve just that. In the move were the likes of Matteo Trentin and Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Floors, Toms Skujins of Cannondale-Drapac, Jose Joaquin Rojas and Marc Solar of Movistar, Magnus Cort Nielsen of Orica-SCOTT, Alessandro De Marchi of BMC Racing, Alexey Lutsenko of Astana, Giovanni Visconti of Bahrain-Merida and more.
All in all it was a group of almost 20 in number that formed after 60km of racing, but despite having formed so late in the stage, Team Sky were happy to see them disappear up the road and establish a lead of upwards of 12 minutes with less than 50km remaining. The peloton were once again commanded by Team Sky who looked to have restored order for now at least, although what would happen in the closing kilometres would be anyone’s guess.
It was interesting to see the tactical games being played by Katusha-Alpecin. The breakaway’s lead got cut to 11.39mins on the run in to the summit of the second climb of the day, but that was partly due to an attack launched by Katusha-Alpecin who sent three riders out on the attack – one of which was Ilnur Zakarin – and forced the GC group to chase. It was Bahrain-Merida who took up the chase effort with Team Sky confidently just biding their time. But off the back and still with more than 40km of racing to go was Esteban Chaves of Orica-SCOTT who had already lost 40 seconds to the GC group.
Not only Zakarin but also Fabio Aru was prepared to go on the attack. The Italian was well down on Froome’s red jersey overall, with 6.45mins to make up; but he was prepared to light things up, while Team Sky just contended themselves with keeping a good pace and maintaining as many teammates around Chris Froome as possible for now.
Up ahead the break really began to shift in momentum as an attack went clear with just under 33km left to race. With about 3km left to the summit of the penultimate climb of the day Sander Armee of Lotto Soudal and Alexis Gougeard of AG2R La Mondiale went on the attack. They quickly put distance into the rest but were gradually joined by Marc Soler of Movistar who led the trio over the summit of the climb before Alexey Lutsenko and Julian Alaphilippe also joined the leaders. With 23.6km to go the gap had come down to 10 minutes.
Despite attacks behind in the GC group from David de la Cruz and Alberto Contador, Team Sky looked in control and comfortable. Also in the breakaway group a further couple of riders had succeeded in bridging across including Jose Joaquin Rojas. Knowing that the break was possibly still too strong, Sander Armee and Alexis Gougeard went on the attack again. Armee was visibly strong as he was joined by Alexey Lutsenko, while Julian Alaphilippe tried to bridge across. The Frenchman succeeded but now there were just three remaining.
Behind the breakaway Fabio Aru was still on the attack, building a lead over the Froome group of upwards of a minute. The Italian national champion had no company though, and so it would be interesting to see how much of his energy Aru had burnt through as the stage reached crunch point.
With 10km to go then it was Lutsenko, Alaphlippe and Armee contesting the stage win. That broke up again with 5km to go as Sander Armee attacked and put pressure on the Frenchman. Lutsenko was comfortably able to bridge across, but Alaphlippe was clearly struggling and after looking like he’d be able to get back across, Alaphlippe cracked, leaving just Lutsenko and Armee with 3.8km remaining.
The final climb officially kicked in with 3.2km to go. Armee was looking for his first ever professional win, wile Lutsenko had already had experience of winning in this year’s Vuelta. The duo knew the stakes and were playing tactical games now; neither truly willing to come through and share the load of pace setting. Behind them Aru was still gaining on the GC group with a lead of 1.25mins. But it was all about stage honours up ahead and the road was about to ramp upwards. The two leaders were still trading efforts on the front, but not willingly, with both riders frustratingly urging the other to take their turn. Both riders cancelled each other out as they went through 1km to go, but then Armee took over the pace setting with 900m to go and looked to be the stronger. Lutsenko was beginning to hit the red zone as Armee sensed an opportunity at last with just over 700m remaining.
All of a sudden the gap opened up between the two riders as Lutsenko completely cracked. Armee was grimacing himself, but he knew that finally the stage was going to be his as he pulled out a 31 second advantage and had just enough energy to raise an arm in celebration. Lutsenko crossed the line in 2nd, 15 seconds ahead of Giovanni Visconti who took third place, with Alexis Gougeard and the nearly man Jose Joaquin Rojas completing the top 5.
Meanwhile there was still a GC battle to be fought, and as the riders reached the final climb Team Sky – still with four riders supporting Froome – hit the front and tied to deter attacks. Fabio Aru still led the way, but the question for the Italian was how much had his efforts cost him? Would he be able to maintain his lead?
The peloton behind him suddenly sprung into life courtesy of a surge in pace from Trek-Segafredo. Peter Stetina led the way for Alberto Contador as they tried to take over control of the GC group and potentially force Froome on the defensive. Sky were too wise to the move however. Off the back of the group a number of riders were suffering, with Esteban Chaves – who had regained contact with the group – Nicolas Roche, Tejay van Garderen and Miguel Angel Lopez all suffered, with Nibali also being put on the ropes.
With the metres ticking away Froome went on the attack himself, with Alberto Contador jumping on his wheel, but crucially Nibali was unable to keep pace. Instead it was just Froome, Contador and Michael Woods of Cannondale-Drapac who found themselves together, piling on the pace and distancing all behind them; all the while closing rapidly on Fabio Aru. Wilco Kelderman was the best of those dropped, trying desperately to limit the time gaps and doing so well.
Aru was able to cross the line ahead of the rest, but in the end he’d gained only 12 seconds on Froome, Contador and Woods, while Kelderman and Zakarin finished 4 seconds later. In the end Vincenzo Nibali crossed the line 21 seconds behind Froome with David de la Cruz. Overall the result meant that Chris Froome’s advantage over Nibali is back out to 1.37mins, with Kelderman 3rd at 2.17mins, with Zakarin at 2.29mins and Contador at 3.34mins.