Five talking points from stage 18 of the Vuelta a España 2020

Roglič takes a second consecutive Vuelta red jersey as Ackermann wins the Madrid sprint

Ackermann gets the better of Bennett in sprint

Pascal Ackermann wins stage 18 of the Vuelta a España 2020 (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

For the first time this race, Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) reached the finish line ahead of Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) in a sprint, defeating him in a tight photo finish.

The German had of course already been retroactively given a win on stage nine after Bennett was controversially relegated for headbutting a rider, but this one will feel much sweeter for having been won on the road — at the finish, Ackermann even said that he “wasn’t really counting” the previous win.

Although it had felt like Bennett was generally getting the better of Ackermann over these past three weeks, the German actually ends the race with the upper-hand, boasting two stage wins to Bennett’s one. As dominant as the Irishman was in the first bunch sprint way back on stage four, he has endured a tiring final week, being dropped from the peloton on several occasions, whereas Ackermann has gradually improved as the race has gone on.

Roglič gets home safely to seal overall victory

Primož Roglič on stage 18 of the 2020 Vuelta a España (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Nothing out of the ordinary happened on the final stage of the race, meaning that Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) could enjoy a relaxed day that saw him complete his defence of the Vuelta a España title.

Asked how he felt about his victory last year compared to last year, he said it was “impossible to compare”, but the Slovenian was certainly put under more pressure this time around. His eventual winning margin of 24 seconds was much smaller than the 2-33 he won by last year, and the excursions of riding the Tour de France clearly took a toll as he struggled when put under pressure by the likes of Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling).

Roglič wasn’t put under any stress today, however, as his rivals complied with the unwritten rule that nobody attacks the leader’s jersey on the final circuit stage of a Grand Tour.

There was some activity as the peloton approached Madrid, however, as Astana set a searing pace in search of bonus seconds for Aleksandr Vlasov, who needed to gain just two seconds to overtake Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in 10th place on GC. Although attacking the overall leader is considered a faux pas, a move against tenth place is fair game, and it was fun to watch the race briefly burst into life, even if nothing ultimately came of it.

Brennauer withstands Borghini challenge to win Ceratizit

Lisa Brennauer wins the Ceratizit Challenge (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

What might have been a dull, uneventful circuit procession in Madrid was made fantastically entertaining thanks to two things: the bonus seconds format, and Elisa Longo Borghini’s never-say-die attitude.

With bonus seconds available at the end of every other lap, everything was still to play for at the top of the general classification, despite the handy lead Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) opened up after yesterday’s time trial.

Lorena Wiebes (Sunweb) was the first to take the race to Brennauer, using her superior sprint to pull back some of her 18-second deficit on the first intermediate sprint, but it was Borghini who really threatened to depose her as overall leader.

Borghini attacked 46km from the finish, and managed to get a gap over the peloton, despite there being nothing in the pan-flat parcours to assist, or having anyone else attack with her. Even more impressively, she managed to stay out front for a considerable amount of time, picking up bonus seconds on the way so that she became the race’s virtual leader by a significant margin.

Her lead, which mostly hovered at around 20-25 seconds, eventually started tumbling in the last few laps, until the catch was made 13km from the finish.

It was an impressive display of defiance from Borghini, who has entertained with her aggressive racing throughout the season, but Lisa Brennauer ultimately remained calm and attentive enough to defend her title, continuing her fine run of form with overall victory on the very last race of the season.

Elisa Balsamo wins the sprint

Elisa Balsamo wins stage three of the Ceratizit Challenge 2020 (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

The catch of Elisa Longo Borghini might have spelled an end to the race for GC, but there was still a bunch sprint to be had for the stage win, and coincidentally it was another Italian called Elisa who triumphed.

Elisa Balsamo’s Valcar-Travel & Service team set her up perfectly, starting their lead out at the front of the peloton in the final kilometre and leaving her perfectly placed to begin her sprint. Wiebes tried to catch her out by opening her sprint early, but Balsamo remained alert, latching onto the Dutchwoman’s wheel and biding her time before coming past her at the line.

It is a first win at senior level for the 22-year-old this season, but one that has been coming. She won the European Championships U23 road race in Plouay, and was also second in the sprint at La Course in the peloton behind the breakaway that contested the win.

Better still, she made an excellent start to the Ceratizit Challenge, finishing second behind Wiebes in the uphill sprint on Friday’s opening stage. That she managed to get the better of Wiebes this time round to end her season with her best result yet might be a sign of what’s to come in 2021 for the Italian.

The end to a unique season

Chris Froome on stage 18 of the Vuelta a España 2020 (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Today’s races saw an end to both the men’s and women’s road seasons, seasons that have been like none in history.

The fact so many races actually ended up taking place after the Covid pandemic so severely interrupted in the spring is remarkable, and the idea that we would be here in November witnessing the end of the third Grand Tour of the season seemed a fanciful thought back then.

Uncertainty remains a prevailing mood in the peloton, however, not just in terms of how the virus will impact next season, but also in terms of the riders’ futures. Many still remain without contracts, including those who have impressed over these past three weeks — Will Barta (CCC), for instance, is still looking for an employer, despite doing so well to finish second in the time trial behind Roglič.

For others, today had a more concrete sense of an ending — most notably for Chris Froome, who was making his final appearance for Ineos Grenadiers having spent the last 11 years riding for the team. There was a reminder of his past successes for the team at the start of the day, when he was officially awarded the 2011 Vuelta a España (the win had been retroactively taken from Juan José Cobo for irregular blood values on his biological passport), and he’ll now be hoping to return to that form when he joins his new team Israel Start-Up Nation.