The big talking points from stage 17 of the 2018 Vuelta a España
Simon Yates loses seconds
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) can consider his day a success – he remains in the red jersey, has seen rivals Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) lose time, and he only lost eight seconds to nearest rival Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
But with a lead as slender as the one he holds, even this small handful of seconds weakens his position.
It wasn’t until the very last metres of the ludicrously steep Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia that Yates lost the wheel of Valverde. For that he has brother Adam to thank, who did a superb bringing back an earlier attack from the Spaniard at the start of the climb, and proceeded to pace him up most of the climb..
The brothers have generally raced separately throughout their pro careers, so it was a rare sight to see the identical twins riding alongside each other. Simon will likely need Adam to continue to protect him if he’s to protect his precarious 25 seconds over Valverde.
Michael Woods wins another for EF Education First-Drapac
Michael Woods was the victor from a large breakaway, securing a second stage win for his EF Education First-Drapac team following Simon Clarke’s victory in the first week.
Surprisingly for a rider who achieved such impressive results in recent years, including seventh overall at last year’s Vuelta and second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year, this is just the fourth win of his career, and only his second on European roads.
To do so, he got the better of two riders who have spent the Vuelta trying and failing to win stages. Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has been a regular escapee and was second on the stage to La Camperona, fell away in the final kilometre to finish fourth, while Dylan Teuns (BMC) had to settle for second place (his fifth top five of the race) after his attack was successfully countered inside the final 500 metres by Woods.
Whereas a rider like Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) has the king of the mountains jersey to show for his efforts at constantly getting into breakaways (he inherits the jersey from Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) after claiming maximum points on each of today’s first five climbs), Teuns and Majka so far having nothing to show for their work.
With just a few days left, they will be desperate for a stage win.
Steven Kruijswijk loses time…
As quickly as Steven Kruijswijk leapt into the race for the red jersey yesterday with a stellar ride in the time trial, he tumbled back out of it in the space of barely a kilometre at the top of the Balcón de Bizkaia today.
The performance in the time trial suggested Kruijswijk was riding into some formidable form, and he didn’t appear to be having too much problems staying in the group of favourites, which has been reduced
But as the summit neared, the Dutchman cracked totally. Not only was he dropped, but he haemorrhaged time at an alarming race, and crossed the line 56 seconds behind Simon Yates, meaning that he is now further adrift (1-48) from the red jersey than he was before the time trial.
Dreams of overall victory may therefore seem probably beyond him now, but at least a challenge for a first-ever Grand Tour podium finish remains on the cards.
…as does Nairo Quintana
The other big loser of the day was Nairo Quintana (Movistar). He was dropped very early on the climb, ironically after his teammate Valverde had increased the pace in the group of favourites with a stinging attack.
From that point on the climb became an exercise in damage limitation for Quintana, as the Colombian had to soldier on alone while watching any hope of the red jersey disappear up the road ahead of him.
To be fair to the Colombian, he did manage to dig deep and pace himself shrewdly, and never appeared to go entirely into the red. In fact, he even managed to reach Kruijswijk’s wheel at the line, despite having been dropped several kilometres before.
But the 56 seconds he loses to Yates sees him move down the GC to sixth at 2-11, and relegated into a role of support rider for Valverde. While he could yet be part of the Vuelta’s winning team through the Spaniard, on an individual level this looks set to be the third successive Grand Tour in which the Colombian has seriously underperformed expectations.
An atmospheric finale
The Balcón de Bizkaia proved to be the most atmospheric finish of the Vuelta so far.
Even by the standards set by this Grand Tour, its gradients were cruelly steep, and most riders looked absolutely broken by the time they reached the line.
Heightening the surreal experience was the dark fog that permeated near the top, that was so strong that you had to squint to make out who was crossing the line, with each rider reaching the finish as an obscure object that slowly emerged from the darkness.
The Basque crowds came out in huge numbers to watch, too, lining the roadside and making for the kind of passionate audience associated with the region.
All in all, it was a spectacle worthy of the battle taking place on the road, and one that will live long in the memory.