Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) moved closer to overall victory at the Vuelta a España after a tumultuous stage to the Alto de Piornal. The red jersey outsprinted his closest rival Enric Mas (Movistar) to win stage 18 after they had caught lone escapee Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) within sight of the line.
The stage was animated by a daring assault from UAE Team Emirates, who dispatched João Almeida up the road with almost 100km remaining. The Portuguese rider’s long-range effort spread a degree of panic among the podium contenders, but Evenepoel looked utterly unflappable throughout a breathless day of racing.
A fragmented race began to come unsteadily back together on the final climb, where Evenepoel responded promptly to a series of accelerations from Mas. The Belgian also took care to unleash a brace of stinging efforts of his own as the red jersey group constantly fragmented and reformed in the closing kilometres.
Mas’ final surge came deep inside the final kilometre, with Evenepoel the only man able to follow. That acceleration brought them up to Gesink, the last survivor of the day’s early break, and there would be no gifts from the red jersey as he sprinted to stage victory.
Evenepoel came home two seconds ahead of Mas and Gesink, with Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) leading the chasers across the line at 13 seconds.
“It’s really, a new achievement in my life,” Evenepoel said of his second stage win at this Vuelta. “It was a pretty tough stage, with really hard climbs in the final, and there were early attacks from UAE with Almeida. The race was really hard, but we always stayed calm. That’s what I’ve learned the most, to always stay calm.”
In the overall standings, Evenepoel is now 2:07 ahead of Mas, while Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) is third at 5:14. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana-Qazaqstan) moves up to fourth overall after Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos), faller early in the stage, conceded ground on the final climb.
Rodriguez was part of a multi-rider crash after 15km, and his injuries would eventually tell on the dual ascent of the Piornal. Although he dragged his way back into contention after being distanced on the first ascent, he was definitively dropped as Evenepoel and Mas swapped accelerations on the final climb, eventually 1:19 to drop to fifth overall.
King of the mountains Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck) came down in the same crash as Rodríguez and was forced to abandon the race due to his injuries.
The pace, already high at the time of the crash, scarcely relented thereafter, with a break of some 38 riders forging clear. Gesink, Richard Carapaz (Ineos), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Elie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic), Hugh Carthy (EF-EasyPost) and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) were the last men standing at the base of the final climb, but they were unable to withstand the fightback from the GC group – and Mas and Evenepoel in particular – on the Alto del Piornal.
Mas made a point of apologising to Gesink past the finish line, though the Dutchman was magnanimous. “No worries,” he smiled as he spoke to reporters in the mixed zone.
“Enric is a really fair play guy, and in the end, we worked together to go for the stage win,” said Evenepoel. “In the end, it was a sprint, and I think it was a great race from the team. A perfect day. This was the most perfect day ever.”
How it unfolded
The abandon of Primož Roglič may have divested the race for the red jersey of considerable suspense, but the Vuelta is never light on drama. Evenepoel foresaw as much when he spoke with reporters at the start of stage 18 in Trujillo. “There is a long and tricky climb with 90k to go so I expect the race to be quite open from there on,” he said. “I expect a long final.” A career in punditry awaits.
The first news of the day was of the doleful kind. An early crash saw multiple riders hit the ground, with Vine the worst affected. The Australian had seemed all but assured of victory in the king of the mountains classification but, three days from Madrid, he was forced to abandon the race, with Carapaz taking virtual control of the jersey.
Carapaz’s teammate Carlos Rodríguez and green jersey Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) were also among the fallers. Both men were mercifully able to continue, though Rodríguez sustained cuts to his back and left side that required lengthy treatment from the medical car behind the peloton.
Shortly afterwards, a break of some 38 riders forged clear of the peloton. Carapaz, who began the day over 25 minutes down, was the best placed rider, which meant QuickStep-AlphaVinyl and the GC teams were happy to grant them early leeway. Other strongmen aboard the unwieldly move included Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos), Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates), Lawson Craddock (BikeExchange-Jayco), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan), Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) and Evenepoel’s teammate Fausto Masnada (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl).
With 100km to go, the break’s move has yawned north of eight minutes, but the stage took on a different guise shortly afterwards, when UAE Team Emirates took over from QuickStep at the head of the bunch and began winding up the pace with considerable intent. The idea was to propel Almeida onto the offensive, and the Portuguese rider duly forged clear of the bunch with teammate Brandon McNulty with 90km or so remaining.
Almeida set out alone at the foot of the category 2 Alto de la Despera, and by the summit, the gap between the break and the bunch had tightened considerably. Carapaz led the escapees over the top, while Almeida trailed by four minutes, with the bunch another minute further back.
Ivo Oliveira (UAE Team Emirates), part of the day’s early break, dropped back to help Almeida in his endeavour in the long valley leading to the first, category 1 approach of the Alto de Piornal. The Portuguese tandem combined to close to within 3:15 of the break when the climb began with 54km remaining, while the Astana-led peloton was at a little over four minutes.
As on the previous ascent, Almeida soon ploughed a lone furrow on the Piornal, endeavouring to bridge across to the escapees, but his proximity on GC meant that Astana were fully committed to their attempts to bring him back. Soler, after some hesitation, dropped back from the splintering break to help pace Almeida on the upper reaches of the Piornal, while Nibali dropped all the way back to the red jersey group to come to López’s assistance.
Out in front, Gesink, Pinot, Carthy, Carapaz, Elie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic) and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) emerged as the strongmen from the break, pressing clear atop the Piornal, and there was a similar winnowing process in the red jersey group, which was down to just ten riders come the summit. Rodríguez, clearly suffering the effects of his crash, was an absentee, though the Spanish champion would manage to scramble his way back on over the other side.
Come the final climb, which saw the race tackle the Piornal via a slightly gentler approach, the break’s lead was down to 1:28 on Almeida and 2:00 on a red jersey group still being led by Nibali. The gaps would shrink quickly once the final ascent began.
Out in front, Gesink pushed clear with Gesbert before dropping the Frenchman, while Mas launched the first of a half-dozen accelerations with 9km remaining. Those efforts brought the red jersey group back up to Almeida with 7km to go. From there, the constant flow of attack and counter-attack saw the GC group splinter and reform on several occasions.
At one point, López and Ayuso were shaken loose, but they bridged back up, with the Colombian even launching an attack of his own with 5km remaining. The final shake-up came on the upper portion of the climb, where Evenepoel’s double effort with 3km to go doomed Rodriguez’s attempts to stay in touch.
Mas tried again in the closing kilometres, with Evenepoel closing each time. The Spaniard’s final effort, 700 metres from home, brought the top two on GC clear of the rest and across to Gesink. Evenepoel won the day and increased his lead, but Mas will surely be minded to try again in the Sierras of Madrid on Saturday afternoon.
“It still not done, there’s still one really hard stage to come,” Evenepoel said. “They will for sure attack me, but maybe now it’s even more easy to control it, because I feel that my legs are really good.”
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