Another day down: Vuelta a España leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) came through stage 18, which he described as "the easiest so far." But the Pyrenees and the race's final showdown are looming fast on the horizon.
With a tailwind pushing the bunch along at an average speed of 47.1kph all day, an attentive Yates completed the stage in 19th place in a hectic finale. He was part of the front peloton of some 40 riders that shattered on the last little uphill through Lleida as the sprinters' teams tried - in vain - to chase down stage winner Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal).
The Briton goes into the Pyrenees, therefore, with his 25-second advantage over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and a 1:22 lead on third-placed Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) intact.
Yet as Yates savoured a moment of quiet before the oncoming GC storm, the Briton recognised that taking the overall victory in the Vuelta a España will be anything but straightforward.
"It was a very calm day, the easiest so far at the Vuelta," Yates told reporters afterwards. "The finish was very fast, so I made sure I was in the front there to be safe. I'm feeling good."
However, he had no doubts that Mas and Valverde would try to win the race and that with two GC stages left to fight, the battle would be renewed on Friday in the Pyrenees with a vengeance. On the plus side, he said, he was completely confident in his team's abilities to help him defend his lead.
"They are both very classy riders, and I expect them both to be very active," he said. "[But] I've never been alone at all.
"Yesterday [stage 17 to the Balcon de Bizkaia summit finish] I had most of the guys in the front group and I expect the same will happen over the next few days. I think we have the strongest [GC] team now."
As a resident of Andorra, Yates said that he would be fighting on 'home soil' and that he knew the climbs he would face - the 17-kilometre Coll de la Rabassa on Friday, and the six different ascents on Saturday - very well.
"The stages will be very difficult, but I'm looking forward to it," Yates said. "I'm just trying to do my own race, I think I can win and I want to try to do that."
Asked which of the two stages he preferred, one with a single climb at the end or a multiple-ascent day, Yates said the latter.
"These stages [with a single climb] have a place in cycling and for the GC guys, you can save energy right until the end so it's very explosive. But I prefer it when there is more climbing."
Either way, Yates is heading back to the mountains, the terrain where he is normally at his strongest and with a narrow advantage over his rivals. The Vuelta, as things stand, is his to win or lose.
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