Hola and welcome to the Cyclingnews live coverage of the 169km stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana from Suances to Santo Toribio de Liébana. The riders face another day in the mountains as the fight for overall victory intensifies.
Stage 16 report: Froome wins time trial to extend lead
Stage 17 report: Froome struggles on Los Machucos
Our live coverage begins as the riders cover the neutralised sector before the flag is dropped for the 169km of racing.
A total of 161 riders are left in the race, with Maxime Monfort (Lotto Soudal) a non-starter due to illness.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) still leads and so wears the red jersey but his difficult day on Wednesday means his lead on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is down to just 1:16.
This is the top ten in the general classification after the steep finish to Alto de los Machucos.
1 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky 67:44:03
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida 0:01:16
3 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:02:13
4 Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin 0:02:25
5 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Trek-Segafredo 0:03:34
6 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:04:39
7 Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac 0:06:33
8 Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky 0:06:40
9 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:06:45
10 David de la Cruz (Spa) Quick-Step Floors 0:10:10
Today's stage is not as tough, with a flat opening 100km. However the climbs then come thick and fast, with a nasty but short climb p to the finish. Froome's weaknesses cold be exposed again.
Local resident and former triple World Champion Oscar Freire was at the start and discussed the day’s stage route with Cyclingnews.
“The last climb is tricky but I don’t think it’s going to be that bad, at most somebody having a bad day will lose 10 seconds. There’s a lot of flat terrain before hand and if you have team driving hard, it can make you suffer, and a few climbs, but it’s not too hard. Really it’s the very first part of the stage that could do damage, along the coast, if there’s going to be a break it’s hard for the top teams to control," he said.
"And if they can’t control them what'll happens is what happened round here in 2012, when Contador attacked on the way to Fuente De and won the Vuelta.”
The official start of the stage was delayed slightly due to a crash but the flag has dropped and we can see the first attacks from the Cyclingnews blimp.
Richard Carapaz (Movistar) is the first to attack but other riders are on the move too.
The riders have a slight tail wind to help them head inland. the sun is out, with temperatures of 20C.
159km remaining from 169km
The peloton is all back together, as riders struggle to get away.
Chris Froome got a huge cheer at the start but Stefan Denifl of Aqua Blue Sport did too after his stage victory yesterday. He even got a message of congratulation from the Austrian President.
He spoke briefly at the start.
"It was a really amazing day. I'm so proud of everybody and what we achieved here," he said in a video posted by the team.
"The support of the Irish fans and the Austrian cycling fans was amazing. It has been our first year, our first Grand Tour and the stage win was amazing. Now we just want to enjoy the next few days and then go to Madrid and have some beers."
He and his teammates deserve a beer after taking such a big win on their Grand Tour debut and considering their team bus was set on fire earlier in the race.
Back in the race, there is still no break after 17km of racing.
Yesterday Denifl dedicated his win to his wife and baby boy, later posing a photo of him on social media.
"This is for my girlfriend and little boy. I think they're watching at home. I can't believe it; I had super, super legs today. I was waiting the whole Vuelta for this day. I paced myself the whole Vuelta, and today I went all in. It's just amazing. For me team, Aqua Blue we're at our first Grand Tour here, and winning a stage …I'm over the moon. Thanks. Thanks," he said.
Denifl spent all day in the break of the stage but never doubted his chances on the steep climb to the finish.
"You always have to believe to win, and when I felt my legs I was like, 'Oh my God. These legs are super good.' And I just kept on pushing. The climb was perfect for me with some flats parts in between for recovery. Now I won a stage in the Vuelta. It's the best day in my cycling life," he said.
142km remaining from 169km
The pace is high but no attack has got away just yet.
Vincenzo Nibali pulled back 42 seconds on Chris Froome yesterday but is under no illusions that it will hard to topple the Briton and won the Vuelta.
"In the last climb I had slightly unusual feelings after yesterday's time trial stage, but then I found my own pace and I went up the climb very well. I collaborated well with [Ilnur] Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), because we both wanted to take back time in the overall, and that was a good thing," he said.
"Froome didn't show any signs of weaknesses at all during the stage, not at all, and he had seven riders with him all the way to the last climb," Nibali said. "Sky was looking very solid."
To read our full story on Nibali's time gain, click here.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was aggressive yet again yesterday, attacking alone with six kilometres to go to try and win the stage. He finished second, 28 seconds back but moved up to just 3:34 down on Froome and so closer to a final podium spot.
"It was a good stage for me, particularly because when I had to push deeper, my legs responded well," Contador said after the stage 17 climb to Los Machucos.
Contador's searing uphill attack did not quite net the stage win, and he still has yet to take a victory in his final season, with only three opportunities remaining.
"It was a pity I couldn't do it," he said. "But this has been the day I've felt the best in all three weeks, and I like this rainy weather, too."
"I knew the right wheel to follow was Lopez, and I had to go with him when he attacked, even though there was a bit of a gap between me and him when he went. At first it wasn't easy to follow his pace, and I actually almost got dropped at one point, but then there came another really steep ramp, I saw he was in a tough place and I didn't think twice about what to do."
Sadhbh O'Shea spotted Contador at the start this morning. He seemed to have his race face on, so we can expect attacks.
He knowns many of the climbs of the stage, having used to them launch other successful attacks during his career.
He covered the Collada de la Hoz climb during his 2012 attack to Fuente De that won him the Vuelta.
131km remaining from 169km
After 38km of fast racing on the rolling hills near the coast, we have a real attack. Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) has jumped away from the lined-out peloton.
The talented Luxembourg rider is trying to find a sense to his Vuelta after failing to fight for the overall classification.
Jungels has opened a 10-second gap but is being chased by four other riders.
The peloton has enjoyed some spectacular views after the start in Suances.
With teams and riders keen to get into the break - knowing that Team Sky and the other GC contenders might let it go, there is a huge fight to be in the right move and pull back those that are considered a threat.
120km remaining from 169km
Jungels has been caught but now Jérémy Maison (FDJ) is trying his luck, hoping to be joined by others.
Despite yesterdays tough stage, the fight for the break means the riders have covered the first hour at 45.6 km/h. That hurts!
Gruppo compatto. Maison is back in the main house.
Fabio Aru cut a lonely figure at the start today, with reports in La Gazzetta dello Sport that he had threatened to quit the race in anger at his Astana team.
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) also tries to attack but is quickly brought to heel.
108km remaining from 169km
Here we go. We have a major attack from 20 riders.
Working together they have quickly gained 30 seconds on the peloton.
Many riders will be happy to see them go clear, so they can recover from the mad first hour of racing.
This is a high-quality break. In there are Alaphilippe, Visconti, Trentin, De Marchi, Lutsenko and Skujins.
The peloton has let them go and the gap is already close to 3:00.
Th 20 riders in the move are: Julian Alaphilippe, Matteo Trentin (Quick Step), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott), Nelson Oliveira, Marc Soler (Movistar), Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe), Clément Chevrier, Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale), Toms Skujins (Cannondale-Drapac), Antwan Tolhoek (LottoNL-Jumbo), Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Sander Armée (Lotto-Soudal), Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida), Jérémy Maison, Anthony Roux (FDJ), Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis), Sergio Pardilla (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Aldemar Reyes (Manzana-Postobón).
It will be fascinating to see if Team Sky try to control the peloton and chase or let the move go and save their strength for Saturday's important showdown on the Angliru.
Team Sky is riding tempo but the gap to the break has grown to 5:30.
The break is big one and so riders are playing games and playing team roles. Several are ducking and diving at the back to avoid working up front.
Behind Team Sky are lined across the road, slowing the peloton.
Because of Team Sky's slowing tactics, the gap is up to 8:00.
90km remaining from 169km
It looks like the 20 will fight for the stage victory.
After several riders took on bidons, they are working smoothly to increase their gap.
The roads roll in the hills of northern Spain today. The terrain is green but not easy.
Alaphilippe drops back to the Quick-Step team car for a chat and energy bar.
The Belgian team also has three-time stage winner Matteo Trentin in the break of 20 and so has two excellent cards to play.
87km remaining from 169km
Team Sky is riding on the front but the gap is still growing. It is up past 10:00 now.
Behind Team Sky, Froome's rivals are lined up and riding together.
Katusha is protecting Zakarin, with Nibali further back protected by several Bahrain-Merida teammates.
Nibali is riding in the green points jersey today, though Froome leads the competition.
Sergio Pardilla (Caja-Rural) is the best classified rider in the attack. He's 16th with a delay of 24:28 and so risk to Froome or the other GC contenders.
Trentin is third in the points competition and so is no doubt chasing points today to try and win the jersey in Madrid.
Froome is again dressed in red and seems relaxed but focused as he pedals in the slipstream of his teammates.
78km remaining from 169km
The gap continues to rise. It's at 11:30 now.
Toms Skujins (Cannondale-Drapac) drops back to his team car, collects a banana and a small can of coke.
Ian Stannard is the Team Sky rider doing much of the work. He is swapping off with Christian Knees and Salvatore Puccio as they keep the pace steady.
Upfront, Mohoric and Cort call for their team cars and also want to feed.
74km remaining from 169km
The riders are about to switch from the rolling roads of Cantabria to the tougher hills of the 169km stage.
They face the Collada de Carmona, the Collada de Ozalba and the Collada de la Hoz, before the final 2.5 km slope that will lead them to the finish at the Santo Toribio de Liébana Monastery.
The three climbs are respectively 4.8km, 6km and 7km long.
They come one after the other, in just 44km, including the descents.
The peloton has reached the feed zone, with the gap up to 12:30. That's the biggest gap we've so far in this year's Vuelta.
The break of 20 riders are just six kilometres from the first climb now. The peloton is several kilometres further back.
The views are stunning today as the stage heads deep into Cantabria. The roads are winding but wide.
The riders face a long transfer to their hotels but the top ten riders in the overall classification will be given a ride in a race helicopter.
64km remaining from 169km
12:40 the advantage for the escapees as they begin the category 3 climb of Collada de Carmona (4.8km at 7.2%).
Mohoric was a fine stage winner in Cuenca at the end of the opening week, and the former junior and under-23 world champion sets the tempo on the climb in the break.
Another previous stage winner (and under-23 world champion) in the break is Alexey Lutsenko (Astana). The Kazakhstani takes over from Mohoric on the front as the escapees maintain their united front on the first of the day's classified climbs.
Sky continue to lead the peloton, which is now 13:20 down on the escapees. Delegations from Trek-Segafredo and Astana are beginning to move towards the front with intent, however.
59km remaining from 169km
Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar) leads the break over the top of Collada de Carmona with a lead of 13:10 over a peloton that is now being led by Astana, Trek and Sky.
54km remaining from 169km
Jeremy Maison (FDJ) forces the pace on the descent of the Collada de Carmona and opens a small gap over the rest of the break. He is joined by Rojas and Mohoric, but the rest of the escapees are not far behind.
52km remaining from 169km
The break comes back together once again as they reach the base of the descent - with one exception. Julian Alaphilippe has been caught napping on the descent, and has been trailed off by around 100 metres. He has some work to do to claw his way back on...
50km remaining from 169km
After an unexpectedly frantic chase, Alaphilippe has latched back on to the break on the approach to the day's second classified climb, the category 3 Collada de Ozalba (6km at 6.6%).
After attacking on the previous descent, Maison is showing signs of suffering on the early slopes of the Collada de Ozalba. The break's lead over the peloton has dropped to 12:25.
Ian Stannard (Sky) sets the tempo in the peloton on the approach to the Collada de Ozalba. The teams of the general classification contenders are increasingly prominent near the front.
46km remaining from 169km
Sander Armee (Lotto Soudal) accelerates in the break and stretches out the group of 20 riders. Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis) betrays signs of suffering at the back.
Katusha-Alpecin take up the reins at the head of the peloton as it hits the base of the Collada de Ozalba with a deficit of 12:48.
A gap opens behind the five Katusha riders at the front of the peloton, and now Zakarin has a lead over the bunch with four teammates for company.
Nibali's Bahrain-Merida squad move to the front of the peloton and they are in the process of bring back Zakarin and his teammates.
Zak has been pulled back but the tension has risen in the peloton after Katusha's acceleration.
Upfront Trentin winds up the pace as the intermediate sprint nears. He wants maximum points.
40km remaining from 169km
The sprint is at the bottom of the second climb.
The third and final climb is the Collada de la Hoz, it's the longest at 7km and 6% gradient.
Meanwhile the Katusha team is still trying to shake up the peloton. It has worked to an extent. Esteban Chaves has been distanced and so have several Team Sky riders.
37km remaining from 169km
Chaves is coming back up in a small group but the peloton is down to 30 or so riders.
But we have more attacks. LLSanchez jumps across to Mate and Aru has joined them.
.... and here comes Contador.
But Team Sky ups the pace to sweep them up. However Aru kicks again and goes clear.
The peloton splits again, with Chaves again spat out the back.
Aru reaches the top of the climb but he's out there alone.
Other riders attack over the top. The descent could be as aggressive as the climb.
Trentin has been confirmed as the winner of the intermediate sprint. the break is now on the final climb, with Alaphilippe trying to split the 20-rider break on the last major climb of the stage.
Aru leads the peloton by 30 seconds on the descent.
Team Sky seem back in control, at least for now.
Alexis Gougeard (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Sander Armée (Lotto Soudal) have attacked the break.
Despite being alone, Aru is pushing on with his attack. He seems to be venting his anger after reported tension with his Astana team.
Behind the peloton hits the climb and Contador attacks! Race on!
Froome is trying to chase with two teammates but he seems to be struggling to hold their wheel.
Sky close down Contador but the attacks has blown the peloton to pieces.
De la Cruz now goes on the attack as the GC guys are all back together.
Woods is at the back of the group, fighting to hold the wheels.
23km remaining from 169km
We have two races: for the stage victory up front and amongst the GC riders for the top ten places.
The break has split over the top of the Hoz climb but all is not lost to the likes of Lutzenko caught behind.
Contador's attack did not cause much damage but Nieve has been dropped. Froome has just Poels and Moscon to help him.
Nieve makes it back as the GC riders reach the summit but Froome must be worried today.
The GC guys are about to sweep up De la Cruz on the fast descent of the Hoz climb.
The break faces just 19km and short climb up to the finish.
Aru us still ahead in no-man's land but leads the GC group by just 30 seconds.
Team Sky seem back in control after the Contador attacks. They must now marshal any final attacks on the winding road and final kick up to the finish.
15km remaining from 169km
Upfront the strongest riders in the attack are watching each other.
A poor attack could cost them a chance of victory but so could a decision not to chase an attack.
Team Sky has eased the pace on the descent of the Hoz.
13km remaining from 169km
There eight riders in the front split of the break. Anyone of them could win the stage.
Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale) looks good, as does Lutsenko (Astana).
Sander Armee (Lotto Soudal) is trying to lead the way an split the move further. It's working.
Lutsenko joins him, as does Alaphilippe.
The 8 lead the 12 chasers by just 25 seconds, with the peloton at 10:30 and Aru at 9:30.
10km remaining from 169km
Lutsenko, Alaphilippe and Armee are opening their lead. They look set to fight for the stage victory.
The race is in a stunning gorge before the kick up to the finish at the monastery.
There are 50 or so riders in the GC group, with Stetina punching tickets at the back.
The last kick up to the Alto de Santo Toribio de Liebana is 3.2km long at 6.4%.
It could be enough for attacks on Froome and the fight for the podium places.
The break and the peloton are riding at the same pace and so the gap stays at around 10:00.
5km remaining from 169km
Lutsenko, Alaphilippe and Armee pass under the 5km to go banner.
The chasers are only 10 seconds back.
However Armee is not hanging around.
He surges away, Lutsenko joins him but Alaphilippe is struggling.
3km remaining from 169km
The Frenchman has missed the move and so Lutsenko ups the pace again.
It's a two-rider battle for the stage win on the 2.5km climb up to the line.
Aru leads the peloton by almost 1:30. He is now a threat to Woods' seventh place overall.
his attack is not in vain.
Armee tries to play mind games with Lutsenko but the Kazakh keeps the pace high to stop anyone coming back at the pair.
1km remaining from 169km
It's Armee versus Lutsenko for the stage win.
Visconti can see Armee and Lutsenko as he tries to chase.
Armee upped the pace and dropped him with 600 metres to go.
Armee digs deep and makes it over the steepest part of the climb. He's going to win the stage.
He does not have the energy to zip up his jersey and celebrates with a one handed punch of the air.
Lutsenko finishes second at 30 seconds, Visconti is third, with Gougeard behind him.
The rest of the break comes in but only Lotto Soudal is celebrating. It's a big in for the Belgian team.
Behind Aru is fighting to hold onto his lead as Team Sky chase behind.
Aru hits the climb to the finish with a lead of one minute on the peloton.
Lopez, Nieve and Moscon are protecting Froome, with Poels tucked behind the race leader.
Aru is making a huge effort. It will be interesting to see if it is worth it for the former Vuelta winner.
The speed is high behind as Trek seem to set up Contador for an attack.
This is the top ten for the stage as the GC riders fight behind them.
1 Sander Armee (Bel) Lotto Soudal 4:09:39
2 Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Pro Team 0:00:31
3 Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Bahrain-Merida 0:00:46
4 Alexis Gougeard (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:01:02
5 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:06
6 Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team 0:01:19
7 Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step Floors 0:01:21
8 Sergio Pardilla Bellon (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA 0:01:21
9 Antwan Tolhoek (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo 0:01:38
10 Anthony Roux (Fra) FDJ 0:01:42
The pace set by Moscon is spitting GC guys out of the back. Lopez goes, as does van Garderen.
It is Poels setting the pace. Now Froome takes over and goes on the attack himself!
Nibali is struggling, so Froome presses on. Contador kicks with him. Woods is there too.
It's a fight for every second.
Kelderman and Zak are coming back but there's no sign of Nibali.
Aru finishes, with Contador, Froome and Woods just after.
Nibali comes in some 20 seconds later.
It's a bad day for the Italian.
Van Garderen finishes and so limits his losses.
After his problems yesterday, Froome fought back with help from Poels and Team Sky.
Instead of letting his rivals attack him, he upped the pace with Poels and then split the GC riders, scattering his rivals behind him.
It will be interesting to see how the stage shuffled the time gaps and top ten overall.
Nibali lost 21 seconds to Froome, while Aru faded on the climb and so only gained 12 seconds on Froome. However he gained more on his closer rivals in the top ten.
Froome now leads Nibali by 1:37, with Kelderman third at 2:17 and Zakarin fourth at 2:29.
Contador is fifth at 3:34. He is closing in on the podium.
The podium ceremony is in the shadows of the monastery.
Froome will be smiling on the podium when he pulls on the red jersey.
This is the new top ten overall after today's stage.
1 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky 72:03:50
2 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida 0:01:37
3 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:02:17
4 Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin 0:02:29
5 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Trek-Segafredo 0:03:34
6 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:05:16
7 Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac 0:06:33
8 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:06:33
9 Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky 0:06:47
10 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo 0:10:26
Woods held on to seventh place but Aru is now eighth on the same time, 6:33 down on Froome.
The Canadian will also have to watch out for Poels, who is only 6:47 down on his leader and so only 14 seconds down on Woods and Aru.
It's Armee's first win after eight years as a professional. No wonder he's happy.
Armee punches the air with a huge smile on his face as he steps on the podium.
He's waited a long time for this moment and is savouring every second.
This is the first image of Armee celebrating his stage win at the Vuelta.
He went deep in the final kilometre to distance Lutsenko.
Davide Vilella also kept the climber's blue polka-dot jersey for Cannondale-Drapac.
The US team is having a good Vuelta despite its sponsorship woes. Fortunately it seems that team manager Jonathan Vaughters has found a sponsor with a formal announcement expected on Friday.
Chris Froome was again well protected by his teammates as this image shows.
While Armee was the rider of the day, Fabio Aru also showed his character with a determined solo attack.
He fought for 20km to try to gain time and was rewarded with a show of pride and eighth place overall.
Froome was naturally happy with his day.
"Today worked out perfectly in my favour," he said immediately after the stage.
"It was a really tough stage. A lot of GC guys tried to attack on the penultimate climb, so once we got onto that final climb the team did a really strong pace at the bottom, and I think certainly some guys paid for their efforts yesterday and also paid for their attacks earlier on today."
Froome was not concerned to lose time to Aru but was happy to gain time on Nibali.
"Fabio [Aru] is one of the GC guys, but he's still over five minutes on the general classification. For us he’s not really a big threat for the overall title, so I think it’s more of a fight for the top-five places on the podium, with regards to Aru," Froome said.
"I mean that feels great [to gain time on Nibali]. That feels great especially after a difficult day yesterday. It’s good to bounce back again, and as I said yesterday, the morale is still good and the team is still strong. We’re just looking forward to getting though these next couple days now."
Alberto Contador was again aggressive, on the hardest climb of the stage and even on the final 2.5km climb to the finish.
He gained some more time as he hunts a podium and races the final days of his career. No wonder he races with a smile on his face.
To read our full stage report and see all the photos in our gallery, click here.
Sander Armee was the man of the day, taking his first ever professional victory.
It’s fantastic. It’s the best place to be in a race. This is already my eighth year as a pro rider, so I had to wait quite a long time to win a race," he said.
"I was a couple of times close, and I did my work for the team, but in this Vuelta I got a chance to put myself in a free role and do my own race."
"This was the third time I am in a breakaway, and I felt really good. I felt better and better during the stage, and then in the end I knew I would be close and I went full gas to the finish line."
Armee rode a smart race, holding back from attacking too early despite feeling strong.
Actually on the second climb, I already through to do an attack, because we got quite a big gap with the peloton, but the cooperation wasn’t superb; some guys were not pulling. So I though maybe I’d try something, but it was still too early," he explained
"And then on the second-last climb, Gougeard went and I jumped on his wheel. We had a small gap on some other guys, and then the gap came back on the top of the climb and we did a downhill at quite a good speed."
"I was sitting fourth or fifth wheel and watched a bit the corners, and then I knew on the false flat if I would go full there no one would come back."
"Then it was just Lutsenko who followed, so I attacked a couple of times, and Alaphilippe was in the wheels, but he said he didn’t have good legs, so he couldn’t pull anymore. But you never know with him because he’s a really good finisher. So I knew I had to drop him. We attacked a couple of times on the false flat, and then at 5km to go we were two, and I knew I had my chance because on this type of finish I can do quite well."
"I tried to just do my own pace the last few minutes, and I never came off the big chainring, so I knew if I could do that I could win the race."
Thanks for joining us for full liv coverage of stage 18.
We'll be back for full live coverage of stage 19 from Caso to Gijón on Friday and of the all important stage to the Angliru on Saturday and then the finish in Madrid on Sunday.
hasta la luego!
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