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Good afternoon and welcome to stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana. We've had a lot of mountains of late but the sprinters that have stuck with it will have a chance to take some reward today. The riders have set off from Ejea de los Cabballeros and are currently making their way through the neutral zone.
Unusually for a sprint stage at the Vuelta a Espana, there are no climbs today. I know! The riders can expect an undulating but relatively flat parcours en-route to Lleida.
On paper, the GC guys should have a bit of a day off today. Though, as this is the Vuelta one can never truly be sure. Yesterday was one for the GC men and dutifully shook things up. Nevertheless, Simon Yates still leads the way with a slightly smaller advantage over Alejandro Valverde.
1 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott 69:05:34
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:25
3 Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors 0:01:22
4 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:01:36
5 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo 0:01:48
6 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:02:11
7 Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida 0:04:09
8 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale 0:04:36
9 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ 0:05:31
10 Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:06:05
We are moving regions today. After a few days in the Basque Country with their passionate fans, we move to Catalonia, the home of Team Sky's David de la Cruz. There are also quite a few riders who will see this as a home stage with much of the peloton residing in Girona, a couple of hours up the road from the finish town of Lleida.
Before the racing gets underway, we bring you news of at least one non-starter this afternoon. Team Sunweb have confirmed that Simon Geschke has left the Vuelta due to illness. This is one of his final races with the team as he's due to move to the new CCC WorldTour set-up next season.
The flag has dropped for racing and we've got attacks from the bat. How long will it take for the breakaway to form today? Not long, I suspect.
Today's finish town of Lleida has been a regular feature at the Vuelta a Espana over the years. It made its first appearance as the host of a stage finish in 1946 and would hold the following day's stage start too. When it hosts a finish, Lleida normally hosts a stage start too and this year is no different with tomorrow's stage to Andorra due to start in Lleida.
The last time that the Vuelta a Espana visited Lleida was in 2015 when Danny van Poppel took the win. It was his first Grand Tour stage victory and he's one of the contenders for the win today. He's had a number of close calls at this year's Vuelta and will be really keen to get one on the board.
We have a three-rider breakaway, which escaped after three kilometres, with a minute's lead. The riders are Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal), Sven Eryk Bytrom (UAE Team Emirates) and Jetse Bol (Burgos-BH).
176km remaining from 186km
The peloton has tapped off the gas already, they don't want to make this any more difficult than it should be. With the pace dramatically down, the three leaders extend their advantage to over 2:30. It looks like we have the move for the day.
Burgos-BH have a rider in the break but they are also down a man after Jordi Simon had to abandon the race. Simon was reportedly involved in a collision with a team vehicle, from another team, and left the race in an ambulance. The accident happened when he was making his way through the race caravan after stopping to sort out a mechanical issue. He is in the ICU but it awake and stable according to reports in the Spanish media.
Fabio Aru was another rider to suffer a heavy crash. The Italian came down hard on a corner inside the final 10km. He was visibly angry after the crash and it later transpired that he'd hit the deck as he was trying to move his chain, which had got stuck. As he was dealing with the issue, he crashed at 70kph. Though he was able to continue, he had to do it with much of his backside on show after his shorts were ripped to shreds. He took a blow to the back but is riding again today. Read more about it here.
The gap to the escapees continues to grow to just under three minutes. Quick-Step Floors and Trek-Segafredo are taking up the pace setting in the peloton.
Trek and Quick-Step both have skin in the game today. Elia Viviani has won two for Quick-Step Floors while Giacomo Nizzolo is looking to give Trek-Segafredo their first.
Here is the front of the peloton.
Dylan van Baarle left the Vuelta a Espana after he was involved in a crash caused when a race official stepped into the path of riders that had just crossed the finish line. It was initially thought that he had avoided any broken bones but further scans have revealed a broken pelvis for the Dutchman and Team Sky confirmed yesterday that he would have to sit out the remainder of the season. Read the full story here.
144km remaining from 186km
The peloton is very much keeping control of this breakaway, even if it only consists of three riders. The gap has been dragged down to around 2:30 and we still have a long way to go.
Though they are only three, this breakaway isn't without its firepower. Bystrom is a former under 23 world champion, Wallays has previously won Paris-Tours and Dwars door Vlaanderen while Bol has finished in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix espoirs in the past. Bol is riding his first race with Burgos BH after switching mid-season from Manzana Postobon.
The Vuelta a Espana might be the final Grand Tour of the season but there is still quite a bit of racing to come before the season comes to a close. Rival organiser RCS have announced a changed route for Il Lombardia, with the threat of landslides forcing them to do so. Click here to see what to expect from the new-look route.
More regarding Jordi Simon, who is in hospital after a horrible crash yesterday. According to the hospital, there are positive signs of recovery from Simon but he's due to stay under observation until at least tomorrow. They are still assessing whether surgery will be required. Simon suffered five rib fractures, pulmonary contusion, hemo-pneumothorax and comminuted fracture of both scapulae (shoulder blade).
With 50km under their belts already, the riders are keeping up with the fastest predicted schedule for racing. That has been helped by the peloton's reluctance to let this breakaway get too much rope. The three up front have just 2:18 on the bunch behind.
The gap is still falling to the leaders and it now drops to just two minutes with 120km to go. Will we see an early catch today or will the peloton leave the escapees dangling just off the front?
While today is expected to be uneventful for the GC contenders, there is a small chance of cross winds. At the moment, the peloton is enjoying a gentle breeze coming from behind, which is helping with this fast pacing early on.
Quintana will be happy for a slightly quieter outing today after he gave away quite a bit of time yesterday. The Colombian shifted more than a minute to his teammate Alejandro Valverde and has slipped down the standings. Quintana said after the stage that the team would now need to put everything behind Valverde. Read his full comments here.
Mitchelton-Scott rider Damien Howson says that he and the rest of the team are looking to conserve their energy ahead of a difficult two days in the Andorran mountains.
"“Simon (Yates) is good. Yesterday was a pretty difficult finish, but we have a great team surrounding him," said Hoswon. "He lost some seconds on Valverde, but he also gained a lot of time to the other rivals. We hope for a sprint stage today before a hard weekend coming up in Andorra. I think everyone has a difficult task ahead, so we’re hoping to save as much energy as possible in a stage like today, but that’s bike racing and things can be unpredictable.
"We have to wait to see how the race unfolds. I wouldn’t imagine echelons, but it is quite open and there’s a lot of wind, that’s true. I’m happy to be here. The results speak by themselves and I’m proud to be part of such a successful team.”
106km remaining from 186km
A cursory look back at the racing shows that not much has changed. The three riders, who jumped clear of the bunch after three kilometres, hold a short advantage on the peloton. It has been allowed to grow slightly to 2:28.
With no climbs today, the only point of interest for the riders is the intermediate sprint in Monzon with just under 60km to go. There are bonus seconds available but they will all go to the breakaway, unless they are caught.
There have not been many true sprint finishes in this Vuelta a Espana and today is one of only two opportunities remaining. There are quite a few sprinters in the pack that haven't had a win over the last three weeks and this finale will be hotly contested. Over the next few minutes, I will take a look at who we could see taking the win today.
Elia Viviani is surely the major favourite for the win today. The Italian has won two of the three bunch gallops so far, and it was only an error in positioning that kept him out of contention on the other. Nacer Bouhanni won on that stage and he has since abandoned due to illness. Quick-Step Floors have been on a good run in the mountains with Enric Mas climbing into a podium position overall yesterday.
We must also consider world champion Peter Sagan, who has been there or thereabouts so far. He's not the quickest on flat finishes such as today's but he is likely to have come through the mountains better than most so should feel a little bit fresher. Can he get one over on Viviani today?
I mentioned earlier that Danny van Poppel has a winning record in Lleida. It is the first time that Van Poppel has been to the Vuelta since that debut Grand Tour victory. He has yet to add to his tally but has been very close at the Giro earlier on in the year and here at the Vuelta a Espana.
Giacomo Nizzolo is another contender today, which is why his Trek-Segafredo team has been putting in a solid shift on the front of the peloton today. His record in the sprints at this year's Vuelta have been second, fifth and third.
Matteo Trentin prefers the tougher finales, but he too is a possible contender today. He has been doing a lot of work for Simon Yates over the past week but perhaps he will get a chance of his own today. Luka Mezgec is another possible card for the Mitchelton-Scott team.
Are you looking for a wildcard option? Then look no further than Simone Consonni. The UAE Team Emirates rider has been in the top 10 on each of the three bunch finishes and is an outside bet for glory today.
Other riders to keep an eye on in the bunch sprint are Marc Sarreau (Groupama-FDJ), Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida) and Jon Aberasturi (Euskadi-Murias).
77km remaining from 186km
Bora-Hansgrohe are now lending a touch of help at the front of the peloton. They are up there with a number of other sprint teams, who are keeping the gap to the escapees at a very small margin. With just under 80km to go the advantage for our three up front is just 1:57.
There is a lot of technology about but sometimes the easiest way to let the riders know what's going on is a marker board on the back of a motorbike.
10km to the intermediate sprint.
Michael Woods took a hugely emotional victory yesterday, EF Education First-Drapac's second of the Vuelta a Espana. There was hardly a dry eye in the house as he dedicated his win to his still-born son Hunter. He had the evening to let the emotions sink in but it is back to business today. This is what he had to say at the start.
"Yesterday was a big high, and today I sort of calm down. We’re in for a sunny day. We have four stages left and they’re important for the GC. The job is not over yet. We’ve got such a great team, with Rigo (Uran) riding well so it’s easy to stay motivated despite winning yesterday," said Woods. "We still have opportunities to win and we have a great crew here. We really needed to have a positive Grand Tour. This year didn’t go well with me being ill and Rigo being injured at the Tour.
"It definitely set us back so we came at La Vuelta with pressure on our shoulders. We have great captains. Mitch Docker is doing such a great job. Simon Clarke has been phenomenal and our directors have done a great job in managing us."
Today is not really a day for David de la Cruz but it is important nonetheless as he heads to his home region. He hopes that he can get a morale boost from the home crowds ahead of the stages in Andorra, and says that he will keep, fellow Catalonian, the injured Jordi Simon in his mind today.
“Today we’re coming home. I hope that it will also bring me the strength to fight for a stage win. It’s a pity there isn’t more Catalan riders," he said. "Today is a day to think about Jordi Simon, who suffered a hard crash yesterday and I hope he’s ok and it won’t be too serious. Let’s see if the stages left in Andorra allow me to show everything I had in me for La Vuelta.
"Yesterday I played my cards the best I could, I gave it all, but in the last metres Woods was stronger. We just have to congratulate him and keep fighting. Either one of the Andorran stages would be nice to win, so I hope I can give all I have right now. The important is to keep going with strength in this last part of the race, and yesterday was the day I felt the best. I’m improving every day.”
The leaders have been through the intermediate sprint with Wallays taking the points ahead of Bol and then Bystrom. None of the riders is a threat in the overall standings.
After passing through the intermediate sprint, Bol dropped back to the medical car. He applies something to the side of his chest before returning to the lead group. Perhaps a bee sting or something similar.
We're about to enter the final 50 kilometres of today's stage. The gap to the leaders has been bouncing up and down. It has nudged up over the two-minute mark and seems much more consistent for now. The peloton seem happy to keep them at this advantage and are unlikely to try and shut this down until we get into the final 20-30km.
One sprinter that isn't here, but could well be next year, is Jakub Marezcko. The Italian sprinter has signed with the CCC team for the 2019 season. Read more about that here.
The average speed, helped by the slight tailwind, has been high today. The official website reports that the riders have been ticking along at 45.2kph over the opening hours of the stage. That means that we're actually up on the quickest predicted schedule at the moment.
The peloton is getting very strung out at the moment. There are still some concerns about potential crosswinds in the finale, though they haven't emerged yet.
It is a slightly technical finale with a number of roundabouts to navigate. The last one comes just outside the final kilometre and the sprinters will have to be on the money, in terms of positioning, if they want to keep themselves in contention for the win.
Quick-Step Floors say that Peter Sagan is the biggest threat today but the world champion says that he's a tad tired after doing the Tour de France in July as well. We must remember that he had quite a bad injury to recover from after he crashed heavily in the final week of the Tour.
“I have to say I’m a little tired after two Grand Tours. I think it will be okay today and we’ll try for sure with the team and see what happens. It’s a flat stage so I think it’s gonna come down to a sprint. It’s gonna be fast. Here, the points classification is different than on the Tour and I didn’t come in the best shape. I feel better than at the start but it’s not the top, not like in the Tour de France.”
28km remaining from 186km
The leaders are into Almacellas and we now have just under 30 kilometres to go. We're still around 10-15 minutes ahead of schedule with the gap between the two groups at 2:20.
There are some huge crowds out as the peloton now heads through Almacelles. Quick-Step Floors controlling the front.
The leaders are really having to push hard to keep the peloton at bay. Wallays is practicing his best Thomas Voeckler impression as he sticks his tongue out in effort.
20km remaining from 186km
Mathias Brandle is doing a big turn on the front for Trek-Segafredo and he's doing some damage too, bringing the gap to the leaders down to 1:41. This is where the action really starts.
Adam Yates among those sitting near the back of the peloton. Mitchelton-Scott have really tired to protect him during the Vuelta a Espana, only really bringing him to the fore in the final week. The team wants to avoid the same crash and burn that Simon Yates suffered at the Giro and are trying to ensure that his brother Adam is as fresh as he can be to help him in the final few crucial stages.
15km remaining from 186km
As well as the plentiful roundabouts in the finial kilometres, the riders must deal with some changes in gradient. It's not quite yesterday's finale but the road will dip down just outside the final kilometre before a long drag to the line for the final 1,000 metres.
Thomas De Gendt is dangling off the back of the peloton. He has the polka dot jersey on his back today after assuming the lead of the mountains classification. He is not interested in today and trying to save his efforts for tomorrow and Saturday.
Meanwhile, a mechanical issue for Sepp Kuss. He's going to have a tough job getting back onto the bunch with just 13km to go.
11km remaining from 186km
Almost all of the sprint teams taking a turn on the front of the peloton and the gap to the three escapees is just one minute.
Euskadi Murias getting into the mix with the WorldTour teams. They've already had a dream Vuelta a Espana with Oscar Rodriguez taking the win on La Camperona. It is Jon Aberasturi for them today.
8km remaining from 186km
The peloton is really having to push hard to bring these three back and there are some splits in the bunch. The fewer riders and the thinner the line the safer it is for the riders. Less chance of an incident.
Simon Yates sitting near the back of the Quick-Step train. His goal is the three-kilometre mark, where he will be safe from losing time if he is caught behind a crash. The gap is just 44 seconds now.
Jetse Bol is struggling to keep up with Bystrom and Wallays, who are charging on down the road.
6km remaining from 186km
If, and that's a big if, the breakaway can make it to the line, I'd put my money on Bystrom to take it. He has a good kick that should be enough to have Wallays, though the Belgian is not to be underestimated.
Bora-Hansgrohe are on the front of the bunch and there is nothing being left in the tank as they chase down this leading pair. Wallays and Bystrom have just 35 seconds on the peloton.
4km remaining from 186km
With four to go, the leaders are really putting up a fight and the gap is still 30 seconds. How long can they hold on?
2km remaining from 186km
Wallays and Bystrom know that if they want to have any chance of causing an upset then they have to work together and they are doing that perfectly. They have just 23 seconds.
They could just do this. The peloton is really giving it everything and the gap is coming down but is it coming down quickly enough?
1km remaining from 186km
There is that drag to the line, which could help the peloton make the catch.
Valverde is moving up the peloton, he's interested in some bonus seconds on the finish line.
Flamme rouge and 16 seconds for the leaders. This is drama!
The front of the peloton is breaking up now as the peloton try to make the catch. 500 metres and we can see the bunch behind.
Sagan is sprinting
Wow, what a finale.
Sagan tried to go from a long way out in order to make it past the leaders. Bystrom was the first to go from the break but Wallays managed to overhaul him just before the line.
An overhead shot shows that Sagan was just over a bike's length from Bystrom in second place as they crossed the line. I think I need a lie down after that final few kilometres.
The sprinters' teams will be kicking themselves after that. This was their first chance in a week to take a win and they managed to stuff it up. However, they were up against two riders who were willing to lay it all out on the road to make it stick.
The only thing predictable about the Vuelta a Espana is that it is unpredictable.
Here we have confirmation of the top 10.
1 Jelle Wallays (Bel) Lotto Soudal 03:57:03
2 Sven Erik Bystrøm (Nor) UAE Team Emirates
3 Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
4 Elia Viviani (Ita) Quick-Step Floors
5 Ivan Garcia (Spa) Bahrain-Merida
6 Danny van Poppel (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo
7 Jon Aberasturi Izaga (Spa) Euskadi Basque Country-Murias
8 Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale
9 Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) Trek-Segafredo
10 Ryan Gibbons (RSA) Dimension Data
Lotto Soudal won four stages at last year's Vuelta a Espana but this is their first of the 2018 race. It is also Jelle Wallays' first Grand Tour stage win and most certainly the biggest victory of his career.
No changes in the overall standings after today's stage but here is a reminder of how things stand.
1 Simon Yates (GBr) Mitchelton-Scott 73:02:37
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 00:00:25
3 Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors 00:01:22
4 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 00:01:36
5 Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo 00:01:48
6 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 00:02:11
7 Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida 00:04:09
8 Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale 00:04:36
9 Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ 00:05:31
10 Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 00:06:05
Though many would have expected the stage to be a bunch sprint, Wallays said that he had pinpointed today as a chance for him. He told Jean Francois Quenet that he was sure that he could surprise people if he was in good form.
"I think everyone was expecting a mass sprint, but I had a crash after the first rest day, and I had something in my mind to do something in a stage, and one was this stage. Everyone expected a mass sprint, but I know if I’m good I can surprise many riders, and today I did it.
"I know Bystrom, he was the strongest sprinter. It was a little uphill. I was well informed by my sport director - if I hear in the last 1.5km we had 30, 35 seconds, I know I need to do something - I stayed on the wheel because he was the strongest sprinter. I wait, I wait, I wait - I only just focused on the line, and I go with 200m.
"I worked very hard to be selected for the Tour de France, that was for me no selection, and I worked very hard through La Vuelta for a stage victory, and here it is. For me, it’s fantastic."
Jelle Wallays taking today's stage win. Look behind him and you can see just how close the peloton got to him.
Peter Sagan's teammate Lukas Postlberger admitted that the sprinters' teams got their calculations wrong today but says they will keep trying en-route to Madrid on Sunday.
"There were pretty strong guys in the front and the tailwind for most of the helped them I think," he said. "The estimation that all the teams made was wrong. For me, I like when the breakaway does it but I would like to be the breakaway finisher. It was pretty close, we did our best in the final 10ks. Marcus [Burghardt] was really strong. It was close but it didn’t happen.
"We still have a good commitment and we are working really well together. We will try our best."
For our report, results and photos from today's stage head over to our report page, here.
Simon Yates was his usual succinct self when he spoke to the press after the stage. Understandably, he is looking forward to getting back into the mountains tomorrow.
"It was OK until the final, it was really fast because of the wind. Hard final, but the rest was a nice day. I’m looking forward to tomorrow now.
"It’s going to be very difficult, I know that. I must say - I know the stages now, so maybe that helps a little bit. But it’s going to be very difficult and I’ll give it my best shot."
There are just two mountain stages remaining to decide the Vuelta a Espana title and Yates goes into this crucial part with a 25-second lead over Alejandro Valverde. Tomorrow's stage has just one climb but it is a doozy at 17km at an average gradient of 6.6 per cent with the finish line at 2,025m. Meanwhile, Saturday's stage is contested at almost entirely above 1,000 metres and features six classified climbs including the summit finish on the Coll de la Gallina.
It won't be just the overall contenders looking forward to tomorrow, the mountains classification is also up for grabs. Thomas De Gendt leads Luis Angel Mate by 10 points in the standings so it is still very much up for grabs.
""I think it’s a once in a lifetime chance to win the KOM classification in a Grand Tour," said De Gendt. "I hope probably I will keep it tomorrow, but Saturday will be hard to defend the jersey. But it’s only one race left, and I just have to go really full and focussed the whole of Saturday’s stage, and hopefully I can still wear it in the evening."
At the finish, De Gendt also spoke about his teammate's stage win and said that the team were trying to push on Wallays over the team radio.
"He said this morning that his goal was to win today, he saved himself more or less the last days just for today. This day was maybe not expected to be from a breakaway, but we know he’s been strong. This was one of his only chances and he took it, so it’s really incredible. We know his strength, so we tried to motivate him and say something in the communication to give him the motivation to keep going, because probably he was going really full - but we were also going full in the bunch and were not closing that fast. We hoped he would survive, but we didn’t think it was possible. That he wins is really something incredible for him."
Sven Erik Bystrom was understandably disappointed with missing out on the opportunity to take a stage victory today. However, the Norwegian tried to remain pragmatic about it.
"It was close in the end, and unfortunately, I have to settle for second place. Wallays was strong in the break and we cooperated well together most of the day," said Bystrom. "At two kilometres to go, he sat up and I had to pull, so unfortunately for me it meant I finished in second.
"We did well tactically. We decided to ride easy in the first part and then in the last 50k we played with the peloton a bit. It’s disappointing now but at least I was there for the win."
Wallays takes his trophy for the stage win, a plaque with the stage profile on it.
Simon Yates will spend at least another day in red. Can he hold off Valverde in tomorrow's summit finish?
This is what the riders can expect in tomorrow's mountain stage.
On that note, we say goodbye to you this evening. If you haven't had enough of me then come back tomorrow for full live coverage of tomorrow's stage. Meanwhile, our reporters Alasdair Fotheringham and Patrick Fletcher will have reaction from today's stage.
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