It was a day of twos at the Vuelta. On a stage which featured two late ascents of Monte Castrove, Fabio Aru claimed his second victory, while Chris Froome took back two seconds at an intermediate sprint and then finished in second place to move into second overall.
Froome mugs Valverde …
On a day earmarked by lots of riders and teams as their last, best chance to grab a breakaway win, the peloton clipped off 50km in the opening hour as early attacks were reeled in. It took 62km before FDJ’s Johan Le Bon finally escaped with king of the mountains leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural) and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r La Mondiale). Sanchez moved closer to clinching the polka dot jersey by riding solo over the first ascent of Monte Castrove with 24km remaining, before the Sky-led peloton brought everyone back together on the descent.
Sky continued to lead the charge into the intermediate sprint with 9km remaining. With Chris Froome just three seconds behind second-placed Alejandro Valverde in the GC and up to three seconds on offer, Sky’s plan couldn’t have been more obvious if it had been written in five-metre high pink neon letters. And yet Movistar appeared to be caught flat-footed, with Valverde conspicuous by his absence as only Gorka Izagirre managed to head off Froome, who took two seconds for second place instead.
… And vrooms into second
Cofidis’ Christophe Le Mevel, Giant-Shimano’s Warren Barguil and Le Mevel’s teammate Jerome Coppel launched early moves on the final climb. However, the big guns sat patiently on the front, keeping their powder dry until less than 4km remained. by which time the peloton was down to around 20 riders.
It was Fabio Aru (Astana) who made the decisive move, quickly catching and passing Coppel and eventually drawing a response from Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) which was followed only by Valverde, race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Froome, who was the last to catch up but then kept going to bridge to Aru, leaving Valverde to tow his two compatriots behind him.
With second overall as his prize, Froome was left to do most of the work in the final 2km, allowing Aru to easily outsprint him for the stage win. But as the three Spaniards focussed more on playing the old quick-slow-quick-slow with each other than catching the lead pair, 12 valuable seconds ticked by between the time that Froome crossed the line in second and Valverde in third.
Taking into account finishing bonuses, it meant the Briton’s three-second deficit at the start of the day had become a 13-second advantage by the end of it. Just as he did at the Tour, Valverde is going backwards in the final week of a grand tour while Contador, who didn’t look at his best today, still has a cushion of over a minute with just one major mountain test and a short time trial still to concern him.
Among the list of non-starters this morning was Belkin’s Robert Gesink, who retired from his overnight position of seventh. It’s been a tough year for the Dutchman, who missed several months after being diagnosed with a heart condition. His pregnant wife has had to undergo operations twice in the recent days. Our thoughts go out to him and his family.
Also climbing off their bikes were Fabian Cancellara (Trek) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), both of whom are looking ahead to the World Championships road race. I’ve never been a fan of riders using a grand tour as an extended training camp and I do wonder whether the UCI should consider some kind of sanction, whether financial or WorldTour points, for riders who abandon a race without good reason. Or am I being too draconian?
VeloVoices rider of the day
Chris Froome is never going to win the hearts of many fans for Sky’s soul-crushing scientific approach to racing and his own awkward, stem-gazing riding style. But on this day he did everything right. Good team tactics – traditionally not one of Sky’s strong suits – caught Movistar and Valverde on the hop at the last sprint. Then his well-timed attack on the final climb completed the job.
We don’t do a Dunderhead of the Day award, but if we did today’s would go to Valverde. From the way Sky massed at the front ahead of the final intermediate, it was obvious that Froome was planning to contest the sprint. And had Valverde worked harder with Contador and Rodriguez in the final 2km rather than engage in a petulant squabble when he was the only one with something to lose, he might even have won the stage. If Froome finishes the race a handful of seconds ahead, Valverde will look back on today as the day he threw away second spot.
Stage 18 result
1. Fabio Aru (Astana) 3:47:17
2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:01
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +0:13
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) same time
5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) s/t
1. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) 71:38:37
2. Chris Froome (Sky) +1:19
3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +1:32
4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +2:29
5. Fabio Aru (Astana) +3:15
6. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) +6:52
7. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) +6:59
8. Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) +9:12
9. Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) +9:44
10. Damiano Caruso (Cannondale) +9:45
Points leader: John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano).
King of the Mountains leader: Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural).
Combined jersey: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Team classification: Katusha.