Nicolas Roche wins a two-up sprint after a long day off the front as the GC riders battle but fail to wrest red jersey from Dumoulin.

After a long day off the front on a hilly stage in Spain, Nicolas Roche proved the best of a group of 25 instigators in stage 18 of the Vuelta a España. The Sky rider fought his way over Thursday’s category 1 climb in the final 20 kilometers of racing. He rode along with wizened veteran Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing). And in the end, he was fastest in a two-up sprint in Riaza.

“Zubeldia is very strong and very experienced,” said Roche. “I’ve lost sprints before so I wanted to start the sprint to control the situation. It was a hard for me in this Vuelta because I came here with a lot aspirations, but I really suffered with some crashes. It was not easy to stay in the race but I wanted to try to win a stage. It was complicated, but it worked out today.”

Despite numerous attacks from GC rivals, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) kept his overall lead by a narrow three-second margin over Fabio Aru (Astana). “Today, Aru tried really hard to take the red jersey, but actually I was never in trouble,” Dumoulin said. “After his first attack I felt like I would keep the red jersey. I was pretty confident.”

Top 10, stage 18

 

Top-10 overall

 

With 50 kilometers to go, the 25-man break had a five-minute advantage. Cyril Gautier (Europcar), one of the riders in the move, attacked alone with 26 kilometers left, ahead of the day’s category 1 climb.

Astana drove the peloton’s pace, bringing the gap down to 1:30 with 20 kilometers remaining. Aru whipped up the tempo, splitting the bunch but failing to distance Dumoulin on the climb. The pace ebbed, and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) went on the attack but didn’t get away. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) was next to take a flyer, bringing Valverde along for the ride.

Ahead, Roche had caught and passed Gautier. Roche rode over the top with Zubeldia. The red jersey group crested the Puerto de la Quesera intact, one minute behind the lead duo. All of the furious attacking proved fruitless.

With a fast descent to the finish, Roche and Zubeldia were gone for good, and they contested the final sprint 18 seconds ahead of third place, José Gonçalves (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), who had been riding a solo pursuit since the climb. The trio mopped up the time bonuses that may have disturbed the overall standings, leaving Dumoulin, Aru, and others to fight another day.

That opportunity to battle for seconds may come Friday as stage 19 features a punchy climb in the final 2.5 kilometers of racing. There will also be two climbs, a category 3 and category 2, on the 185.8km route from Medina del Campo to Ávila.

“It was difficult day, but I am still in red jersey,” said Dumoulin. “Aru made some attacks, but I was watching him, and I could do a little counterattack there in the end. Three seconds are few, and a lot can still happen. It will be hard again tomorrow.”

Stage 18 results

 

General classification

 

Points classification

 

Mountains classification

 

Teams classification