No breakaway packed with big names? No double-digit gradient wall to climb before the finish? No subtle change in the GC top ten? Was this really the Vuelta as we know it? It was. Stage 18 gave the sprinters one last day to compete before Madrid. However, they blew it by millimetres and let the two remaining riders from the day’s break contest the win. Jelle Wallays of Lotto-Soudal crossed the line first, UAE’s Sven Erik Bystrom was second and a hard-charging Peter Sagan third.
Rider of the Race
The accolade couldn’t go to anyone but stage winner Jelle Wallays. He spent over 180km in the break alongside Bystrom and Jetse Bol of Burgos. Their advantage was never much more than two minutes and it looked like a simple job of catch and sprint. Wallays had other ideas…
Everybody was expecting a massive sprint… I had something in mind to do something on a stage and I had in mind this stage. I knew I had it in me to surprise and I did.
That surprise gives the Belgian rider the biggest win of his career, and does that feel good….?
In the closing 10km, Wallays used all his classics nous to engineer the win. First, he piled on the power, forcing Bol to drop out of contention. Next, Wallays organised himself and Bystrom to keep their pace high. That pace was so high, the chasing pack started to panic! All sense of organisation disappeared from the bunch as riders hit out to make the catch.
Finally, in the last kilometre, Wallays sat behind Bystrom and judged his final surge to perfection to take the win. The timing was so perfect the bunch behind were all given the same time as the two from the break.
A simply stunning bit of race craft from Wallays turned what could have been the dullest stage of the Vuelta into another memorable one. This is the race that keeps on giving.
Thoughts on the rest
Spare a thought for Sven Erik Bystrom. He too would have achieved a career best win today and the margins were very fine. He’ll be gutted but he should be proud to be so close.
And Peter Sagan’s charge to get third place suggests the form is returning for the world champion. He’s been out of sorts since his Tour de France crash, but the power seemed to be back today as he came in best of the rest.
You’re the Quick-Step team. You know your job on Grand Tour sprint stages to the last detail. Control the peloton, bring in the breakaway and perform the perfect lead-out for your main man. They’ve been doing it for years. They probably can do it in their sleep.
Only today, they had a rider in third place overall to think about. They needed to make sure Enric Mas made it through the day safely as well getting Elia Viviani into pole position for the finale.
In the end, they split the team up, some on the chase, some on the train and others protecting Mas. That Quick-Step didn’t put their all into chasing the break may be one of the reasons we got such a thrilling finale.
But what a season Quick Step are having. Couldn’t win on a sprint stage in a Grand Tour? No problems, there are other opportunities elsewhere…
“Flat with a high altitude finish” is the official description. Time is running out for that final podium to take shape. The day’s only categorised climb is 17km long with an average gradient of 6.6% – easy!
1 Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal) 3:57:03
2 Sven Erik Bystrom (UEA) same time
3 Peter Sagan (Bora) s/t
4 Elia Viviani (Quick Step) s/t
5 Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida) s/t
1 Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) 73:02:37
2 Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +0:25
3 Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) +1:22
4 Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) +1.36
5 Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) +1:48
6 Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +2:11
7 Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) +4:09
8 Rigoberto Uran (EF-Drapac) +4:36
9 Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) +5:31
10 Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale) +6:05
All the jerseys
Leader’s jersey: Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott)
Points jersey: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Climber’s jersey: Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal)
Combined jersey: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Team classification: Movistar
Header image: ©GETTY/Velo/Michael Steele