Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) sprang clear of Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) as the road tilted uphill in the final 800 metres of stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, and hung on as it flattened towards the line. On what was perhaps his best shot of toppling the dominant Italian sprinter, the world champion didn't put a pedal stroke wrong. The problem was that Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal) was already celebrating victory.
Sandwiched between two big mountain days, Thursday's stage was the only one of the entire Vuelta not to feature a categorized climb, and a bunch sprint seemed an inevitability.
The uphill kick in the finale was widely predicted to level the playing field between Sagan and Viviani but in the end it mattered little as their teammates failed to bring back Wallays and his breakaway companion.
"I saw those two up the road and yeah, I had to go long, but that's it, I couldn't get them,” Sagan said as he was bundled into his personalized camper van in Lleida.
"Third was the best I could do. It's like that."
The peloton's fluffing of their lines was all the more surprising given the seemingly innocuous nature of the break. There were only three of them in there on a day totaling 186km and, what's more, they were kept on an unusually short leash of 2:30 pretty much all day.
There were, however, two factors that tipped the scales in the breakaway trio's favour: the brisk tailwind blowing through the gaping Aragón landscape, and the numerous roundabouts and bends on the way into Lleida.
"The tailwind helped them stay away. We were limited with the gearing as well. On a downhill you can't go faster than 80kph," Sagan's teammate Lukas Postlberger told Cyclingnews.
"We kept them tight all day but they saved energy because of the tailwind. If you're sitting in bunch you don't know how hard it is out front. They sped up in the last 40 kilometres and it was hard to chase them.
Viviani's lead-out man Michael Morkov added: "They were definitely strong. With 50km to go we started to speed up, and they did as well, and we could see we were not really talking time off them. It's just proof it's super dangerous with a breakaway on a day like today with a tailwind."
Though most were quick to congratulate the winners – and even express jealousy at missing out on the fun – there was the usual finger-pointing over collaboration.
"Maybe if some more teams would have joined in helping in the peloton it would have be better," Postlberger said. "We put a rider up there, Quick-Step already had two, and Trek had one also. Then in the finale LottoNL sent one but that was already too late I think."
Sagan has already gone deeper into this Vuelta a España than he initially set out to. With World Championships preparation in mind, it was thought he would pull out before the terrain became increasingly mountainous towards the end of the race.
It was pencilled in that he would leave after the three rolling stages that followed the first rest day, instead of heading all the way to Madrid via six big mountain stages and a time trial. Yet he has endured, and seems to be nearing the form that might allow him to grab one of the rare opportunities in a GC-oriented final week.
With the uphill kick in the finale, he and his team were aware that Thursday was perhaps the best opportunity ahead of the final stage in Madrid, where Viviani will reassume favourite status.
That said, he added that there was ample evidence in Lleida that Sagan, who has not managed to win in this Vuelta, is coming back to his top form, not to mention hope that they can grab some success from the race before it wraps up in the Spanish capital on Sunday night.
"He did a great sprint. You saw again he was strong enough to win but two guys were some metres in front. That’s how it is,” said Poitschke.
"Viviani has been very strong in this Vuelta and every time it's very close and hard to beat him. Today we saw it was possible, and we will try also in Madrid now."
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