The brutal fog-obscured Balcón de Bizkaia climb made for an intense stage finish
Canada’s Michael Woods was able to outlast breakaway rivals to claim victory on the stage 17 mountain-top finish of the Vuelta a España.
The EF Education First-Drapac rider pulled away from BMC’s Dylan Teuns in the brutal final kilometre to take the stage atop the fog-covered climb.
Race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) skilfully defended his race lead, losing just 8 seconds to nearest challenger Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and extending the gap to other general classification favourites.
How it happened
Stage 17 saw the peloton take on a 157km course through the Basque region, starting in the town of Getxo and battling six categorised climbs along the way.
The stage culminated in the 7.1km first category climb to Balcó de Bizkaia, with maximum gradients of almost 24% and averaging 9.8%.
Riders fired attacks off the front of the peloton from the first turn, trying to gain an advantage before the third category test just 9.5km into the day.
The peloton refused to let any breakaway hopefuls escape before the first climb, with persistent attacks on the slopes failing to get away.
King of the Mountains leader Luis Ángel Matè (Cofidis) struggled on the ascent and was dropped before the summit, leaving his jersey vulnerable to second place Thomas De Gendt.
Mitchelton-Scott led the bunch with Movistar hot on their wheels, as a group of 21 riders escaped with around 130km remaining.
Making it into the breakaway were Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Alexandre Geniez (AG2R-La Mondiale), Omar Fraile (Astana), Alessandro De Marchi, Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team), Rafal Majka, Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-hansgrohe), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Andrey Amador (Movistar Team), Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Dimension Data), Simon Clarke, Michael Woods (Education First-Drapac), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), David De La Cruz, Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky), Jai Hindley (Team Sunweb), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Cristian Rodríguez (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Jesus Herrada, Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis) and Hector Saez.
A chasing group of five also broke free from the peloton, with Quick-Step Floors’ Pieter Serry attacking the pursuers and bridging across to the front group first.
Dimension Data’s Merhawi Kudus then joined the leaders followed by Franco Pellizotti (Bahrain-Merida), Valerio Conti (UAE Team Emirates) and Jose Mendes (Burgos-BH) with 102km to go, making it a 26-man breakaway.
The gap stretched to more than eight minutes with 64km left to ride before the peloton began to close down the frontmen.
Thomas De Gendt took his chance to close the KoM gap on Matè, winning the first two climbs and drawing level with the Spaniard.
The Belgian cemented a lead on the remaining climb.
As the peloton scaled the third category Alto de Santa Eufemia, the toll of Tuesday’s time trial began to show as Astana drove hard on the final metres of the climb.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) was dropped, suffering from the solo effort the day before.
Stage winners at this year’s Vuelta Alexandre Geniez and Simon Clarke pushed on at the crest of the Santa Eufemia and forced a small advantage.
But the pair was swallowed with around 15km to go and the group out front came back together.
The breakaway slowed on the slopes of the category three Alto de Gontzegaraine in anticipation of the challenge to come – Balcón de Bizkaia.
Astana rode hard on the front of the peloton during the penultimate climb to set up their leader Miguel Angel Lopez, who hoped to move up from sixth place on GC.
UAE’s Fabio Aru came down hard, suffering nasty wounds to his rear, as the peloton descended from the Gontzegaraine.
But the Italian was able to change bikes and climb back on.
Simon Clark was first to attack on the lower slops of the final test, rapidly pulling out an advantage before the breakaway riders accelerated and chased down the move.
An injection of pace from BMC up at the front of the race put the breakaway riders under pressure and the group was reduced to just four men with 1.5km to go.
Majka, Teuns and Michael Woods stuck together, with David de la Cruz leading from the front.
Teuns was first to attack but he faded quickly, leaving the Canadian Michael Woods to pass him alone and suffer through the final kilometre to take the win, followed by the Belgian.
Further down the mountain, Valverde pushed the pace in the group of GC favourites but was only able to distance team-mate Nairo Quintana.
Valverde kicked again in the final km and Quick-Step’s Enric Mas was the only man to follow.
Simon Yates lost only eight seconds on his Spanish rival, with Lopez just behind.
Quintana and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) came in together over a minute down on Valverde.
Enric Mas now moves into third on GC, as Lopez occupies the fourth spot, bumping Quintana and Kruijswijk and Quintana into fifth and sixth.
Vuelta a España 2018, stage 17: Getxo to Balćo de Bizkaia (157km)
1. Michael Woods (Can) EF Education First-Drapac, in 4-09-48
2. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC Racing Team, at 5s
3. David De La Cruz (Spa) Team Sky, at 10s
4. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 13s
5. Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin, at 38s
6. Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team, at 44s
7. Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier (Eri) Dimension Data, at 48s
8. Jesus Herrada (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions Credits, at 51s
9. Jai Hindley (Aus) Team Sunweb, at 55s
10. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida, at 1-48
Overall classification after stage 17
1. Simon Yates (Gbr) Mitchelton-Scott, in 69-05-34
2. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar Team, at 25s
3. Enric Mas (Esp) Quick-Step Floors, at 1-22
4. Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team, at 1-36
5. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo, at 1-48
6. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team, at 2-11
7. Ion Izagirre (Esp) Bahrain-Merida, at 4-09
8. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac, at 4-36
9. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ, at 5-31
10. Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale, at 6-05