Jelle Wallays of Lotto Soudal has won stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana; upsetting the sprinters in a stage that was surely primed for them. The Belgian took the win ahead of Sven Erik Bystrøm of UAE Team Emirates and world champion Peter Sagan, as George Bennett played sprint stage domestique and Simon Yates closed to within just three stages of his first grand tour victory.
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Stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana presented the sprinters with arguably their best opportunity all tour to take the honours. The stage was 186.1km in length and featured not even a single categorised climb; a rarity for the Vuelta. The stage began with a breakaway group of three riders going up the road and being allowed freedom to build a moderate advantage over the peloton. Jetse Bol of Burgos-BH, Sven Erik Bystrøm and Jelle Wallays were the components present in the breakaway, and it was generally accepted that they were there purely with the blessing of the peloton and their stay out in front would last until possibly between 10-20km remaining; and from there it would be all about the fast finishers.
Sprint certainty turns to nerves as breakaway commit
BORA-Hansgrohe, Quick-Step Floors and Trek-Segafredo all got amongst the chase at the front of the peloton, with the pack looking fairly relaxed for a change! With 54km of racing to go the gap to the three leaders was at 2.10mins and the day was looking like it was progressing like clockwork in terms of expectations. However, rather than seeing the gap drop over the next 20km the gap actually increased to 2.35mins with just under 37km to go.
It was at this point that the bunch began to string out just a little bit, knowing that a race was on their hands. Credit to the breakaway, the three riders remained committed to simply getting on with doing the job at hand and prolonging their stay out in front and finally the time gap started to come back down. With 21km remaining the gap had dropped to 1.41mins and for all intents and purposes it looked very much like the bunch were still in control.
But there was a visible intensity in the breakaway that was not quite there to the same degree in the peloton. Whether it could be put down to complacency on the peloton’s part who can say, but despite the unity among the sprint teams on the front the gap just wasn’t coming down very quickly. At 19.4km to go the gap was a still catchable 1.30mins and at 11km to go the gap had come down to 1 minute. If the peloton were going to eat away 1 minute of the break’s lead every 10km then it was finally clear that this race was going to go down to the wire.
George Bennett joins the sprint domestiques
Euskadi Murias contributed to the pace setting at the head of the race as the peloton raced along at 60km to go with 11km remaining. Still the three leaders continued on as the gap steadily dropped, their hopes were buoyed though and they were now no longer racing to enjoy a day out in front, they were racing for the stage. As they pressed on and finally Jetse Bol cracked with 7km to go, George Bennett surged forward to try and contribute to the chase on a day that was completely uncharacteristic for the Kiwi!
Bennett was in time trial mode and hoping to line up teammate Danny van Poppel. It was completely out of the ordinary to see Bennett doing the work on a fast, flat run in to a bunch sprint but the climber was not looking out of place; matching the bigger strong riders like Marcus Burghardt.
But try as the bunch might the gap to the two remaining leaders was still a healthy 34 seconds with 5km left to race. Bennett remained at the front of the bunch but the bunch were still just 32 seconds in arrears with 4km remaining. The gap was dropping but it was simply not coming down quickly enough as the two leaders dug deep. Bennett’s last effort on the front saw the Kiwi hit 69kph before finally swinging off. He managed to dent the duo’s lead a fair bit and as the leaders hit 2km to go the advantage was down to 20 seconds.
Bystrøm and Wallays dared not attack one another, while behind them Markel Irizar was charging for Trek-Segafredo as the peloton were at absolutely full stretch coming to the finish. With 1km to go the two riders finally began to look at each other an assess how they might win. Bystrøm was now forced to lead out the sprint as the pack closed in with Postlberger of BORA-Hansgrohe leading out Peter Sagan. Wallays was dicing with danger, as he waited and waited. Peter Sagan launched his sprint from a very long way off, but finally Wallays kicked for home and when he did he managed to just hang on and claim a famous win for Lotto Soudal. Bystrøm held on for second while Sagan made contact with the leaders right on the line to take third.