Vuelta a Espana 2017: Stage 18 Preview

Despite a spirited chase from the GC teams come the stage finale, one rider from the early breakaway managed to hang on to claim a glorious stage win. Stefan Denifl conquered the ‘rampas inhumanas’ to claim his, and Aqua Blue’s, first ever GT stage…

Aqua Blue finally hit the big time, Denifl taking stage 17. CREDIT: GettyImages

Stage Seventeen Review

With a rolling start before the race really encountered any ‘dangerous’ terrain, a six man breakaway move was allowed to take upwards of nine minutes on the bunch behind.

Sky seemed content in allowing the group to go all the way to the finish, but a spirited chase from Astana and Bora soon slashed the gap to within four minutes come the start of the first Cat 2 climb. By the summit the gap had reduced even further, three minutes their only advantage come the peak.

A treacherous descent then lead to the end of David Villella’s breakaway ambitions, the Italian too nervous to take the risks that his other breakaway compatriots were taking. With the KOM leader re-absorbed by the main bunch, the chase to catch the remaining five re-ignited.

Alaphilippe and De Marchi worked tirelessly at the head of the breakaway group but could only match the 2:50 lead to the peloton behind. With the GC riders getting into position behind, the race looked all but over for the escape.

Moreno leads the early breakaway on stage 17. CREDIT: Aqua Blue Sport

On the penultimate Cat 1 climb, Orica decided to play their hand and sent Adam Yates up the road with Esteban Chaves in tow. Pantano and De la Cruz bridged to the move but it was soon shut down by Team Sky. Jack Haig, the next Orica rider to attack, gained a bit more traction and was allowed a gap.

The young Aussie soon caught his teammate from the day’s breakaway, Magnus Cort, and the two set off on a fierce chase of the remaining four riders out front. With riders all over the road coming into the final HC climb, many teams looked to swamp the front of the bunch, eager to send their rider off on the attack.

At the base of the slopes, on the toughest percentages, Denifl and Moreno rode away from their fellow escapees, 1:20 in hand over the GC group/peloton behind. From the peloton, Miguel Angel Lopez and Alberto Contador attacked, instantly putting Sky on the defensive.

Froome became distanced as the ramps steepened and many teams capitalised, namely Nibali who lead an attack alongside Zakarin and Kelderman. The Brit lost seconds with each pedal stroke and had to rely on half of his Sky team to try and pull him back to the groups ahead.

Froome struggles on the steep gradients, conceding time to his nearest rival, Nibali. CREDIT: GettyImages

Meanwhile, Denifl dropped Moreno on one of the final steep inclines and carried on the chase alone. However, a rapidly accelerating Contador was bridging the gap, 40 seconds with 5km of the climb still to ride. The Austrian rider remained resilient and managed to keep ‘El Pistolero’ at bay, conceeding only 15 seconds of his advantage by the summit.

Denifl crossed the line in victorious jubilation, not only was the win his first in a Grand Tour, but also Aqua Blue’s first. The day marked a landmark moment for the team, especially after their team bus fell victim to an arson attack earlier in the week.

Behind, Contador crossed the line ahead of the rest of the GC contenders, putting 30 seconds into the Nibali/Lopez/Zakarin group and a further minute into Froome.

All the time that Froome put into his closest rivals, Nibali and Kelderman, on Tuesday’s ITT, was all but lost come the summit. Nevertheless, the Brit looked at the situation with a positive spin and claimed ‘the gap was still sizeable’…

Denifl claims his prize. CREDIT: GettyImages

Stage Eighteen Preview

Only one truly mountainous stage remains on this Vuelta, stage 20’s grind to the summit of the infamous Angliru. The next two days in the saddle could originally be seen as two innocuous transitional stages; but with gaps in the GC tight, they could potentially turn into two of the most exciting days of racing this race has seen…

The Route: Suances –> Santo Toriobio De Liebana (169km)

Stage 18 Profile. CREDIT: CyclingStage.com

The Vuelta road book may describe the first 100km as a ‘flat start’, but in reality, it is anything but. The lumpy parcours look like perfect breakaway terrain and, as a result, we should be treated to a large group managing to slip away.

With a large amount of teams yet to salvage anything from this year’s race, this is one of their final chances to do something; expect the move to be mobbed. Rolling roads should then allow any potential escape to build up a large buffer, especially if the GC teams leave it all to Team Sky to do the chasing.

The base of the first climb doesn’t come until just over 100km into the stage, a Cat 3 ascent up the Collada de Carmona. The climb from base to summit is only 4.3km, but at 7.5% average gradient, it could see a few tired legs shed early on.

The steepest gradients can be found halfway up, but at only 10%, they’re unlikely to catalyse any long range attacks. Following on from the summit, the rest of the stage resembles that of a hack saw, a trio of climbs interrupted by fast valley sections.

Riders will be praying for clearer weather than today. CREDIT: Kramon

If the weather is anything like it was today, these descents into the valleys may just prove treacherous, especially if a few teams try to push the pace. Another Cat 3 ascent then leads into the ‘hardest’ climb of the day, the Cat 2 Collada de la Hoz.

It’s the longest test of the day, but at percentages of only 5.8%, it certainly won’t be breaking many riders. However, if it’s ridden at a tough enough pace, it could provide a nice little launchpad for any opportunists, whether from the break or the peloton, to distance their rivals.

A descent then takes the riders into the final 20km of the day, a long gradual climb that doesn’t officially start until 3.2km to go. The long slog up to the lower slopes will act as a strength sapper and many riders will start the final climb already deep in the red.

The final slog to the line. CREDIT: CyclingStage.com

The final 3.2km are all uphill, a climb that ramps exponentially all the way to the finish line. The percentages start off quite manageable, 5-6% for the first kilometre. After that, it’s 11% all the way to the finish line, a true grind that should weed out the weakest of the GC contenders.

Whilst the climb isn’t too long, we could potentially see some 30 second gaps between the GC riders, some are very fatigued and will suffer on these ramps…

Breakaway turned GC day?

Whilst the profile may scream breakaway stage, it’s placement near the end of the race, and the outcome of today’s tough stage, may just produce the converse outcome; a GC rider stage victory.

Froome’s weakness was laid out for all to see today and teams pounced on the opportunity to take time on the race leader. He’s clearly carrying fatigue from his ITT effort and needs a simple breakaway stage in order to rest and recuperate for the final mountain stage.

The other GC teams simply can’t allow him to do this, they need to pressure Sky from the off and keep Froome on the back foot. Orica, Trek, Sunweb, Katusha, Astana, Bahrain; each will try to place a rider in the initial move, hoping that Sky set about the chase so as not to allow any GC riders to bridge across.

Contador lays the groundwork for his 2012 victory. CREDIT: RTV.ES

Froome, and Team Sky, won’t struggle with the first few climbs, but the penultimate Cat 2 ascent has proven their kryptonite before. Whilst it may look like a relatively tame ascent by Vuelta standards, the Collada de la Hoz was used by Contador back in 2012 to attack Froome, Valverde and Rodriguez to lay the groundwork of his victory that year.

Riders will know this and may just attack on these ramps, if they can make it over the summit with a gap, they could go onto extend it on the descent. Nibali, Contador and Lopez are all masterful descenders and may just see this as their chance to usurp the lead of Chris Froome.

However, once over the peak, they’ll still face 27 long hard kilometres to the finish line; this is where the breakaway riders will come in handy…

If Team Sky are allowed to come to the base of the final climb in control, Froome will take one step closer to confirming his 2017 Vuelta win. The Angliru is a devilish climb, but it’s tactically simple. This stage on the other hand, could definitely open one large can of worms for Team Sky…

The Contenders

With the Vuelta nearing it’s climax, and a lot of the big climbers still yet to win a stage, many of the GC teams will be eager to keep close tabs on the breakaway tomorrow to ensure we get one big uphill sprint to the line.

Superman has finally found his legs in these final two weeks of La Vuelta. CREDIT: El Espectador

Miguel Angel Lopez has slowly affirmed himself as the strongest climber in this race, two stage wins and multiple podium places on the most crucial of mountain stages. The young Colombian has passed his teammate Fabio Aru in the GC and now has his eyes set on the podium, Astana now devoted to the cause.

Today he attacked on the steepest 25% section and instantly gained bike lengths on the riders behind. Only Alberto Contador could better him up the final climb and this could purely come down to inexperience, Lopez arguably attacking a little too early.

He still has over two minutes to make up on  Ilnur Zakarin come the finale in Madrid which adds more pressure on him to do something tomorrow. He’ll need the ten second bonus and then some, expect Astana to have another long day in the saddle at the head of the peloton.

He may have put everything into today’s ride, but Alberto Contador will be more than ready to go again tomorrow. If there’s one thing the Spaniard is, it’s resilient. He won’t give up without a fierce fight and with this race being his last in pro cycling, he wants to go out with a bang…

He’s used the de la Hoz in the past to punish Chris Froome and I expect he’ll do the same thing all over again. He cannot afford to leave the race until the final climb, time for ‘El Pistolero’ to load those last few remaining bullets and take aim.

Second today, first tomorrow? CREDIT: Tim de Waele

After a spirited chase from his team on today’s stage, Rafal Majka put in a strong performance to match Nibali, Zakarin and Lopez on the final climb. The Pole clearly wants another stage win and will see tomorrow as another good chance.

The Russian, Ilnur Zakarin, has seemingly found his Giro legs over the past couple of stages and has used them to great effect, taking more time out of Wilco Kelderman on today’s stage to solidify his podium placing. The Katusha rider is renowned for sticking to wheels before putting in a last minute dig in the final kilometre.

Tomorrow’s climb isn’t too long and may just lead Zakarin to put in an uncharacteristic attack from the bottom. He needs to take more time on Kelderman, why not use his favoured terrain to do so?

Froome’s closest rival, Vincenzo Nibali, punished the Brit on today’s stage and took back most of the advantage that Froome built up in the ITT. The ‘Shark of Messina’ now lies just 1:16 off the red jersey and looks clearly the stronger.

Froome may have just had one bad day, but this won’t stop Bahrain Merida from initiating a barrage of attacks tomorrow. Nibali will want a handful of riders in the day’s escape to possibly bridge to on the final descent; who will he choose to attack the final climb with? Contador looks like the perfect candidate…

Nibali needs to continue his assault on red tomorrow. CREDIT: Cyclist.co.uk

Whilst the day looks likely to go to the GC riders eyeing up time bonuses, it is possible that a breakaway could snatch yet another victory. After Stefan Denifl proved today, it’s not over until it’s over…

Aside from the big GC teams, there is still a swathe of riders with no overall ambitions looking to take something from this race. Jan Polanc is a rider that tried tirelessly throughout the first week of this race to claim a stage to no avail. Tomorrow suits him and the final climb to the line will appease his strong uphill sprint.

Rui Costa is the other UAE rider who will be eager to join tomorrow’s escape. The former world champion has been probing all race but is yet to hit the big time. If he’s on one of his better days, he won’t struggle to put leagues ahead of himself and the peloton on the climbs.

Other possible breakaway candidates tomorrow include, Simon Clarke, Nicolas Roche, Enric Mas and Marc Soler. Aside from Clarke, none have any real team duties and should be let off the leash tomorrow.

Race Prediction

The racing will start from the gun and many teams will place riders in the breakaway, eager to have riders for their GC men to bridge too later on. Team Sky will be forced on the defensive early and will expend their firepower much earlier than they would have originally liked.

Time to re-kindle some old friendships… CREDIT: CyclingToday

If Moscon and Nieve can be distanced before the final Cat 2 climb, the other teams will be content. Time to attack Froome!

Alberto Contador has used the ramps in the past, and eve if it’s only for old times sake, he will surely attack again tomorrow. After coming second today, nothing will motivate him more to try for the win. Vincenzo Nibali will smell blood and follow, the pair of them forging a large gap on the final descent.

It’ll then become a battle between titans on the final ramps, Contador the stronger rider on tougher 10% gradients.

‘El Pistolero’ to fire his final few bullets and take a career ending stage win…

Who do you think will take tomorrow’s stage? Agree with our prediction? If you enjoyed this stage preview, make sure you’re following InsideThePeloton on Twitter for all further updates on this year’s Vuelta! Any feedback, as always, is greatly appreciated…