Hello and welcome to our live coverage of the possibly pivotal stage 18 of the Vuelta a España. Today the peloton tackle four mountains in the Sierra de Guadarrama in central Spain.
Yesterday's stage 17 was a four-hour, high-speed chase in high winds across central Spain.
The stage saw a big shakeup in the overall standings, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and James Knox (Deceuninck-QuickStep) all gaining over five minutes on the top four on GC.
A revitalised Quintana now lies second overall, 2:24 down on race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-QuickStep) took the stage win, his seventh at the race, after a 47-man group broke away from the peloton in the wind-hit opening kilometres of the stage.
The chase lasted all day, with Jumbo-Visma and Astana working in the peloton against seven QuickStep men in the break, plus several from Movistar, Sunweb and other teams.
The peloton, which eventually shattered with Movistar working at the head of both groups at one point, never came within four minutes of the break during the day, meaning the Vuelta a España was turned on its head on a stage with no categorised climbs.
Gilbert said afterwards that the stage was like a 220km team time trial. The average speed was similar too, with 50.6kph making it the fastest ever stage or one-day race of over 200km in length.
Speeds reached upwards of 60kph for sustained periods on the flat, tailwind-driven during the second half of the stage, with sprinter Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) recording 100kph at one point, en route to taking second at finish.
Today was a little bit fast..... pic.twitter.com/xoKCuO8aDHSeptember 11, 2019
Here's a reminder of the general classification after stage 17.
1 Primoz Roglic (Slo) Team Jumbo-Visma 66:43:36
2 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:02:24
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:02:48
4 Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 0:03:42
5 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:04:09
6 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:05:05
7 Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:07:40
8 James Knox (GBr) Deceuninck-QuickStep 0:08:03
9 Carl Fredrik Hagen (Nor) Lotto Soudal 0:10:43
10 Dylan Teuns (Bel) Bahrain-Merida 0:12:21
With Quintana now recovered from a cold caught while waiting for a ski-lift down the mountain in Andorra after stage 9, can he challenge Roglič today? During the rest day, teammate Alejandro Valverde said of the race leader: "sometimes we've seen him crack at this point in a race." Movistar might just have something up their sleeve today.
Today's stage follows many of the same roads as stage 20 of the 2015 Vuelta a España, tackling the Puerto de Navacerrada and the Puerto de la Morcuera before turning round and tackling them both from the opposite side before the finish.
Back in 2015, Fabio Aru took the race lead after he and his Astana team attacked on the second ascent of the Morcuera, dropping Tom Dumoulin, who would eventually lose almost four minutes.
The Puerto de Navacerrada (11.8km at 6.3 per cent) is a fixture on the Vuelta a España, having been included in 37 editions of the race, with several featuring the climb more than once. Riders such as José Manuel Fuente, Alex Zülle, Tony Rominger and Vincenzo Nibali have led over the top.
While the Navacerrada was a yearly fixture back in the 1990s, nowadays it's a semi-regular feature at the race, included in 2010, 2012, 2015 and now this year.
The Puerto de la Morcuera, meanwhile, is another oft-visited climb, featuring over 20 times on the Vuelta route. It measures in at 13.2km at 5 per cent from the north, and 10.4km at 6.7 per cent from the south.
Anyway, back to today and the riders have set off in the neutralised zone.
🚩🔛 ¡Arranca la etapa 18 desde Colmenar Viejo. @ComunidadMadrid! / Stage 18 from Colmenar Viejo, Comunidad de Madrid is on!#LaVuelta19 pic.twitter.com/t5Ea4liwThSeptember 12, 2019
It's a sunny and warm day as the riders head out of Colmenar Viejo. The wind isn't blowing as hard as it was yesterday, though at the moment there's a cross-tailwind up the first two climbs, meaning it's largely a headwind on the final two.
177km remaining from 177km
The racing is underway now. Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) is policing the front of the peloton.
Here's the latest news from the Vuelta – Miguel Ángel López (Astana) was hit with ten-second time penalty yesterday after receiving a handsling from teammate Jakob Fuglsang.
Martin is pushing the pace early on. No attacks so far...
Now the attacks start.
KOM leader Geoffrey Bouchard is at the rear of the peloton going slowly. He seems to have a mechanical problem.
167km remaining from 177km
No attacks have stuck yet. Numerous teams and riders are pushing on.
Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-QuickStep) has a small gap.
Cavagna was third in the Pau time trial and third yesterday.
Cavagna has less than ten seconds on the peloton.
158km remaining from 177km
Will Barta (CCC Team) and Steve Morabito (Groupama-FDJ) have gotten across to Cavagna now.
The trio have 18 seconds on the peloton.
Luis León Sánchez (Astana) tried a move but has been brought back. The riders are approaching the first climb of the day, the Puerto de Navacerrada.
Here's the climb. Numerous riders are attacking on the early slopes.
145km remaining from 177km
Wout Poels (Team Ineos) leads the race solo. Meanwhile, the peloton is splitting apart already.
Numerous riders are on the attack behind Poels.
KOM leader Bouchard is chasing, along with Hermann Pernsteinter (Bahrain-Merida) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). A larger group is on the move further back.
Apologies for the delay in posting – we've been suffering some poorly-timed technical issues.
Poels has a 40-second lead as he nears the top of the climb.
136km remaining from 177km
Bouchard and Omar Fraile (Astana) are second and third over the top of the climb, 40 seconds down on Poels. The chasers and peloton are all together.
The riders are on a plateau at the top now. The flat road separates the Navacerrada and the Cotos, which is the final climb of the day, so they'll descend down the road they'll be climbing later on.
Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) and Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) are among the attackers on the descent.
Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Mitchelton-Scott) has abanonded the race.
Poels has just 20 seconds on the peloton now.
A group of riders has made it across to Poels now.
Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale), Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), Tobias Ludvigson (Groupama-FDJ), Louis Meintjes, Ben King (Dimension Data) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos) are up there.
Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), Omar Fraile (Astana), Óscar Rodríguez (Euskadi-Murias) Jonas Koch (CCC Team) and Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) are chasing.
115km remaining from 177km
The break hits the base of the Morcuera.
15 seconds between the break and the chasers. 1:30 back to the peloton.
The chase group has caught the leaders. 2:20 back to the peloton.
Pernsteiner is chasing around a minute back.
107km remaining from 177km
Pernsteiner makes it across to the break! A great ride.
I'll hand you over now to Stephen Farrand.
105km remaining from 177km
As usual on decisive Grand Tour stage, the racing is very tactical, as riders target a stage victory and others try to place key teammates in the break to help their team leaders later when the race explodes.
As expected, the Jumbo-Visma team is leading the chase at the head of the peloton. Yesterday Roglic was isolated late on. We'll soon see if the same happens today.
103km remaining from 177km
The scenery is stunning at the moment but the riders have little time and energy to enjoy it. Today is going to be a pivotal stage in this year's Vuelta.
The peloton has eased up, with Jumbo perhaps happy to let the break go, so they can focus on their GC rivals. This is the quiet before the storm.
92km remaining from 177km
As the riders reach the 100km to go point and the summit of the Puerto de la Morcuera, the gap is up to 5:30. Riders are getting back on the peloton due to the steady pace.
The sprint is on for the KOM.
Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale) is the first over the top and so he extends his lead in the blue polka-dot jersey competition.
92km remaining from 177km
The peloton also reaches the summit, some 4:50 down. Jumbo has four riders protecting Roglic. Tony Martin is one of them, after he got back on during the climb.
The break is in the valley now, diving through the forest roads near Madrid.
81km remaining from 177km
The peloton is also on the valley road and so Roglic takes a push to take a moving natural break.
Other riders are taking on bidons and eating food.
75km remaining from 177km
The peloton grab their musettes and quickly take on their lunch. They throw the musettes to the fans along the road, who rush to collect them.
Roglic has three Jumbo teammates ahead of him and two behind. They will be there to help him on the climbs, while Powless is in the break, there for when the race explodes.
Nairo Quintana is again riding in the green points jersey. He spoke briefly at the start but was guarded about his plans.
"We're still in the fight, I hope to be up there today," he said. "I think Astana will also move and we'll try to take advantage of that too."
71km remaining from 177km
The race is heading back to the 10.4km Puerto de la Morcuera. They climb it from the other side this time in a rare loop during a stage race.
The blue section indicates a gradient between 6-9%. This side is much harder than the side climbed earlier in the stage.
As the climb starts, Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) and Jonas Koch (CCC Team) are slightly ahead of their breakaway companions. Behind much of the peloton is back together but surely not for long.
64km remaining from 177km
Trek-Segafredo do not have a rider in the break and so are riding on the front of the peloton. Their generosity is a nice help for Jumbo, who can safe their riders for later in the stage.
Here we go. Astana move to the front of the peloton and up the pace dramatically.
Roglic has just three teammates now: Kuss, Bennett and Gesink.
Astana shepherded Lopez all day when he lead the race and they are massing on the front now.
Astana's forcing is spitting riders out of the back, including Esteban Chaves of Mitchelton.
Lopez has five Astana teammates setting the high pace.
60km remaining from 177km
There are attacks in the break too. Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale) tried first after Meintjes and Koch were caught. Now Poels is on the attack, with others.
Valverde and Quintana are on Lopez's wheel. There are only 20 or so riders left in the front group. This is hurting.
With 3km to go to the summit, the break hits the steepest part of the climb. This will hurt everyone.
Roglic has slipped back a few places. He only has Kuss with him now. Knox and others have been dropped.
There is still 60km to race but Lopez is going for it.
Kuss takes up the chase for Roglic. He perhaps knows the Slovenian's limits and can pace him up the climb. But Lopez is already 30 seconds ahead.
As the summit of the Puerto de la Morcuera, Lopez is closing in on the break. The teams cars are pulled out for safety reasons before the fast descent.
Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale) is on the front of the break, trying to take maximum points.
Lopez reaches the summit with some of the breakaway riders.
His GC rivals are only 25 seconds behind, with Majka making a dig over the top to test his rivals. Roglic reacted but was not quickly on the wheel.
Is that a sign of weakness? We'll soon find out.
The descent is fast but needs effort. Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) seems to have something extra and is off the front, diving through the hairpins and fast corners.
46km remaining from 177km
Lopez is in a group at 1:20, but the GC rivals are only 10 seconds behind now. Lopez has Fraile working for him.
Behind Roglic is alone, as is Pogacar. The final climb of Puerto de Cotos is going to be very interesting.
Roglic now has Powless with him, after the talented American dropped back from the break. For now Jumo's tactics and team strength are making a difference.
42km remaining from 177km
The final climb begins in just two kilometres.
Fraile is still working for Lopez but the GC group can see them now. Lopez's attack was in vain.
37km remaining from 177km
The two groups come back together, leaving just Higuita up the road. He leads by a minute.
The early part of the climb is gentle in the trees but the gradient soon kicks up.
Higuita takes a final bidon from his team car and powers on alone.
32km remaining from 177km
Higuita fights on but behind something is moving. Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos) tries to go away and ups the speed.
Roglic has Powless and Kuss riding tempo for him. Nobody seems to have the power to make a difference today and so put Roglic in difficulty.
30km remaining from 177km
There is 4km to the summit and then a fast descent to the finish.
Lopez makes a dig, Roglic and Valverde follow him but Pogacar is suffering.
Lopez goes again. He's clearly the strongest climber but not by much. Pogacar digs deep and gets back on but will he survive the next attack?
Pogacar has been dropped but he's fighting on, trying to limit his losses. He has the descent to get back on.
Quintana is further back than Pogacar, some 20 seconds, so there will be some changes in the GC.
Lopez has managed to snatch a virtual fourth place from Pogacar but can he hold the gap?
26km remaining from 177km
Higuita reaches the top of the climb and dives down the descent in pursuit of the stage victory.
Lopez, Roglic, Valverde and Majka are 45 seconds behind, Pogacar is at a further 30 seconds, with Quintana another 25 seconds back.
Higuita is on the false flat on the top of the Puerto de Cotos. It's at 1800m and so still hurts. We've got a pursuit match as the GC riders race each other, thinking of the top five overall.
Roglic is in control today and taking a massive step towards overall victory. Friday's stage to Avila is a not a major problem, leaving just Saturday's final mountain stage to Plataforma de Gredos.
Roglic can perhaps 'see' Madrid from today's finish.
17km remaining from 177km
Higuita finally starts the descent. He leads by 40 seconds as he chases his first professional victory. He finished second overall at the Tour of California and fourth at the Tour de Pologne.
Pogacar is stuck in the Quintana chase group and is going to lose at least 50 seconds today. He'll slip to fifth overall.
10km remaining from 177km
Higuita is tucked into TT mode, fighting his way to his first pro victory.
5km remaining from 177km
On a long straight road the GC group can perhaps see Higuita but he's fighting on and still leads by 35 seconds.
Lopez is doing all the work on the front of the GC quartet. Valverde is sitting on to limit Quintana's loss behind, Roglic is the overall leader and Majka is not helping despite it being his birthday.
Higuita is using his track and TT skills to give it all. The roads rises slightly and his gap is down to 25 seconds.
Higuita is into the final kilometre. He's going to make it to the finish and win.
Higuita eases up and celebrates his solo victory!
Behind Roglic beats Valverde in the sprint, 15 or so seconds behind.
Valverde was third, Majka fourth.
As expected Pogacar finished 60 seconds back with Quintana. He slips to fifth overall.
Lopez moved up to fourth and also took the best young rider's white jersey.
This is Higuita as he attacked alone.
This is the top ten for the stage:
1 Sergio Higuita (Col) EF Education First 4:33:09
2 Primoz Roglic (Slo) Team Jumbo-Visma 0:00:15
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team
4 Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe
5 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:00:17
6 Carl Fredrik Hagen (Nor) Lotto Soudal 0:01:16
7 Louis Meintjes (RSA) Dimension Data
8 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team
9 Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates
10 Oscar Rodriguez Garaicoechea (Spa) Euskadi Basque Country-Murias 0:03:47
Pogacar tried to play down his disappointment but he has to be happy with his Vuelta and 2019 season.
This is the new general classification after stage 18:
1 Primoz Roglic (Slo) Team Jumbo-Visma 71:16:54
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:02:50
3 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:03:31
4 Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team 0:04:17
5 Tadej Pogacar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates 0:04:49
6 Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe 0:07:46
7 Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb 0:09:46
8 Carl Fredrik Hagen (Nor) Lotto Soudal 0:11:50
9 James Knox (GBr) Deceuninck-QuickStep 0:12:44
10 Marc Soler (Spa) Movistar Team 0:21:09
Higuita spoke briefly in Spanish before climbing on the podium.
"I had good legs today and the stage suited me," he said. "I wanted to win a stage for the team too because we've had so much bad luck. I got a gap and wanted to stay away, so I gave it absolutely everything. It was nice to celebrate with the Colombian fans at the finish.
To see our full stage report, full results and photo gallery, click here.
The Vuelta stays near Madrid on Friday for stage 18, with a long drop down from the stunning castle walls of Avila to Toledo west of the capital. The 165.2km stage seems suited to a breakaway or the sprinters. however there is a testing kick-up in the final kilometre.
Etapa 18 - Stage 18 | #LaVuelta19🇪🇸 Vive el último kilómetro de la victoria de @HiguitSergio gracias a @CarrefourES🇬🇧 Live the last km. of Sergio Higuita's victory thanks to @CarrefourES#CarrefourConLaVuelta pic.twitter.com/z6rwhVm57HSeptember 12, 2019
And that's all for our live coverage of stage 18. Join us again tomorrow for complete coverage of stage 19, and check back this evening for reaction and news from the Vuelta a España.
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