A good day for Chris Froome
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Froome didn’t wait for his GC rivals to make a move on the final climb to Santo Toribio de Liébana, instead launching his own attack into the final kilometre. It was a different scene from just 24 hours earlier, when Froome looked to be struggling and was left watching all of his rivals disappear up the mountain.
Crucially, it was Nibali who was put into the most trouble by Froome’s attack. Currently runner-up in the general classification, Nibali looked like the rider most likely to be able to topple Froome. But that position now seems to be ebbing away after the Italian conceded 21 seconds on what ranks as a minor climb in this year’s race.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) were the only riders able to match Froome’s pace into the finish – once again leaving us wondering what position Contador would be in had he not suffered a bad day on stage three.
Froome now leads Nibali by an extended margin of one minute and 37 seconds, with Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) also losing a handful of seconds to Froome to sit at 2-17.
A mixed outcome for Astana
Astana displayed a slightly chaotic mixture of tactics during stage 18, possibly revealing an on-going battle over team leadership.
Miguel Angel Lopez started the day as Astana’s highest-placed rider, in sixth place and 4-39 behind race leader Froome. Fabio Aru was ninth at 6-45.
Rather than supporting Lopez into the stage’s finale, Aru launched his own attack over the top of the penultimate climb of Collada de la Hoz with 37km still to go. He put in a huge effort to distance the peloton, but faded on the final climb to finish just 12 seconds ahead of Froome, Contador and Woods – the latter proving to be the revelation of this year’s race.
Meanwhile, Lopez had been distanced after the GC group broke apart as Contador, Froome and Woods went up the road, losing 21 seconds to Froome. The net result was that Lopez and Aru are now moving closer together in the general classification, and are sat in sixth and eighth respectively after the stage.
Having been in the day’s break, Alexey Lutsenko looked to be making more of an impact on the stage, riding strongly with Sander Armée (Lotto Soudal) on the final climb after the pair had dropped their escape companions.
However, the more lightly-built Armée dropped Lutsenko on the climb to go solo. Armée took the win, and there was to be no repeat of Lutsenko’s victory on stage five to celebrate his birthday.
Just one more summit finish to go
There’s just one mountain-top finish left in this year’s Vuelta a España, and many would say the best has been saved until last.
Saturday’s stage finishes atop the Alto de L’Angliru, a towering climb of 12.5 kilometres and an average gradient of 9.8 per cent. It’s a fitting finale to the battle for podium places before Sunday’s flat procession into Madrid.
There may be an attack or two during Friday’s stage 19, but it is likely there will be no major impact on the overall classification with all the GC rivals mindful of what they will have to tackle the following day.
Given the past couple of days’ action, where fortunes have chopped and changed, it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen. Any rider could attack or crack, or both.
Froome may have built up a decent lead of 1-37 over Nibali, but only time will tell us if that is enough. Book your space on the sofa for Saturday afternoon.
Still no Spanish win
Time is rapidly running out for the home nation’s riders to secure a victory in this year’s Vuelta a España. There have been no Spanish stage winners in the race after 18 stages, and with just three days remaining the chances of a win are now looking slim.
It’s not a great story in the top 10 either, with the retiring Alberto Contador providing the most cheer-worthy performance for roadside fans with his numerous attacks to put him in fifth place overall – Spain’s only rider in the top 10.
A promising start for young contender David De La Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) has now faded, and he has dropped to 11th place.
Friday could provide an opportunity for a Spanish rider to come good in a break, or perhaps Contador could really give home fans a final flourish by claiming the prestigious stage to Angliru on Saturday.
No luck for Orica-Scott
At the risk of this being a rather negative edition of ‘Talking Points’, another team who are faltering are Orica-Scott. The Australian team started the race with three Grand Tour hitters: Esteban Chaves, Adam Yates and Simon Yates. All three have enjoyed Grand Tour success in the past 12 months, including Chaves finishing third in last year’s Vuelta.
Chaves started the 2017 Vuelta in promising form, and was positioned in second overall behind Froome after stage 10. However, since then the Colombian has slowly dropped further and further down the GC. He lost over a minute again to Froome and other rivals on stage 18. He now sits in 12th place, 11-57 adrift of Froome and with a final top 10 position looking unlikely.
Adam and Simon Yates both finished stage 18 in the gruppetto, and are likely looking for a chance for a stage win – no doubt eyeing Saturday’s stage. Australian Jack Haig was the team’s top finisher on stage 18 and has been looking in great shape on the climbs, perhaps he could provide the team with a win.