Red jersey wearer Remco Evenepoel stamped his authority on the Vuelta a España with victory atop the Alto de Pironal after a dramatic finish that contained heartbreak for veteran Robert Gesink.
Jumbo-Visma rider Gesink had been the last remaining survivor of the day’s 32-man breakaway and had been holding a healthy gap to the chase behind until Evenepoel launched his decisive attack.
The Dutchman was caught by Evenepoel and Enric Mas (Movistar) with just 400m to go.
The 22 year-old Belgian was the first to launch his sprint for the line as the gradient slackened off and there was little his two companions could do to go with him.
It was a finale that followed multiple attacks from Evenepoel on the slopes of the final climb and appeared to show that the bad days he experienced last weekend where he lost time to both Mas and Primož Roglič (who since had to abandon the race with injury) was a blip that may well not be repeated.
His lead over Mas is now 2-07 with another major mountain test set for Saturday.
HOW IT HAPPENED
It took 50km for a break of 32 riders to form at the front of the race, including a raft of quality climbers keen to win on the final ascent. They included Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richard Carapaz from Ineos Grenadier, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) and Thibault Pinot (Groupama FDJ).
The groups advantage drifted up to nine minutes at one point but things started to breakdown when the hit the Alto del Piornal with about 60km to go where there carthy attacked. A handful of his breakaway companions caught him and Carapaz, leading the king of the mountains classification after Jay Vine crashed out, crested the climb first clearly on a mission to hoover up as many mountains points as he could do.
The front group was thinning and a second chase group started by Joao Almeida’s (UAE Emirates) earlier attack from the peloton was starting to swell.
By the time the riders hit the base of the final Alto de Pironal climb just Carapaz, Carthy, Pinot, Élie Gesbert (Arkea Samsic), Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) and Sergio Higuita (Ef Education-EasyPost) remained in the front group. With an advantage around the two minute mark.
Gesbert was the first to attack but Gesink made it across to him. With 6km to go the Dutchman attacked to go solo.
However by then the GC group was starting to ignite. Further down the mountain Enric Mas (Movistar) had attempted to put daylight between himself and the red jersey but Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) was straight into his wheel. Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroen) was next to try his luck to no avail.
Evenepoel then looked the most decisive forcing a concerted chase from his rivals to reclaim a place in the young Belgian’s slipstream.
As the group started to amass around them as they caught their breath Gesink’s steady pace was keeping his gap from tumbling too fast. With 3km to go he had 30 seconds in hand.
Further stinging accelerations from Evenepoel, O’Connor and Mas seemed to be doing little to eat into his advantage and nor could they crack each other.
Who was cracking was Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos Grenadiers), who had been the most prominent casualty of a pile-up in the early kilometres of the stage and had ridden in tattered jersey and shorts. He would drop down to fifth on GC at the end of the day.
With the kilometres ticking down an acceleration from Evenpoel eventually took him and Mas clear of the group and they began to rapidly close in on Gesink. When they reached him with 400m to go to set up a final three-way sprint the result seemed inevitable. And so it proved with the Belgina besting the other two with ease.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2022: STAGE 18 RESULTS
1. Remco Evenepoel (Bel) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, in 4-45-17
2. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at 0-02
3. Robert Gesink (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, at s.t
4. Jai Hindley (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 0-13
5. Thymen Arensman (Ned) DSM
6. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ
7. Ben O'Connor (Aus) AG2R Citroën
8. Juan Ayuso (Esp) UAE Team Emirates
9. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astan Qazaqstan
10. João Almeida (Por) UAE-Emirates
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 18
1. Remco Evenepoel (Bel) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, in 69-59-12
2. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at 2-07
3. Juan Ayuso (Esp) UAE Team Emirates, at 5-14
4. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana Qazaqstan, at 5-56
5. Carlos Rodríguez (Esp) Ineos Grenadiers, at 6-49
6. João Almeida (Por) UAE Team Emirates, at 7-14
7. Thymenn Arensman (Ned) Team DSM, at 8-09
8. Ben O’Connor (Aus) AG2R Citroën Team, at 9-34
9. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education-EasyPost, at 9-56
10. Jai Hindley (Aus) BORA-Hansgrohe, at 12-03
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Having trained as a journalist at Cardiff University I spent eight years working as a business journalist covering everything from social care, to construction to the legal profession and riding my bike at the weekends and evenings. When a friend told me Cycling Weekly was looking for a news editor, I didn't give myself much chance of landing the role, but I did and joined the publication in 2016. Since then I've covered Tours de France, World Championships, hour records, spring classics and races in the Middle East. On top of that, since becoming features editor in 2017 I've also been lucky enough to get myself sent to ride my bike for magazine pieces in Portugal and across the UK. They've all been fun but I have an enduring passion for covering the national track championships. It might not be the most glamorous but it's got a real community feeling to it.
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