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Vuelta a Espana 2018 Stage 17: Michael Woods wins thriller, Yates still strong in red

Martin James
12 Sep 2018

Final climb of Alto del Balcon causes chaos and ends Quintana's Vuelta hopes but Yates stays strong

Canadian Michael Woods of EF-Drapac won Stage 17 of the 2018 Vuelta a Espana in the fog atop the punishing Alto del Balcon, just staying clear of BMC's Dylan Teuns in a tortuous end of a stage on a climb that hit ramps of 24%.

In the race among the GC contenders, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) retained his overall lead, conceding a handful of seconds to second placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) but gaining time on rivals Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto-NL Jumbo) and most significantly Nairo Quintana (Movistar).

The Colombian was distanced on the toughest part of the climb after an attack by teammate Valverde, but Yates countered that and all other attacks, only ceding time to the green jersey and the impressive Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) in the final couple of hundred metres to the line.

Mas now rises to third overall, rising above Lopez, Kruijswijk and Quintana.

How the stage unfolded

Simon Yates started the day knowing just five stages separate him from a first Grand Tour win, and the country from a first Grand Tour slam of three different Brits winning the sport’s three biggest stage races in the same year.

But then Yates has been here before. Four months ago he led the Giro at the exact same point. In fact, the similarities don’t end there: on the final Wednesday of the Giro in May he started the day having just exceeded expectations in a time-trial won by… yes, Rohan Dennis. An eerily familiar set of circumstances.

Starting Stage 17 of the Giro he led Tom Dumoulin by 56 seconds and Domenico Pozzovivo by 3 minutes 11 seconds.  Those standings held for two more flattish days and then, well… the point is, Yates won't be taking anything for granted regardless of how deep into the third week of the Vuelta we go.

However, the Giro retrospective also serves to remind us that the rider who did eventually win – Chris Froome – wasn’t even in the top three at this point of the race. Nairo Quintana and Miguel Angel Lopez take note…

Unlike Stage 17 of the Giro, of course, Stage 17 of this year’s Vuelta would be far from flat. A ride of 157km from Getxo finished on the Alto del Balcon, a brand new climb of 7.3km gaining 715m in altitude – an average gradient of 9.7%.

However, after a modest beginning the riders would face ramps of 24% around 2km from the top, then a final push to the line of 13%.

Any moves in the general classification would be sure to come here, or perhaps on the separate 3rd category teaser of the 365m Alto de Gontzegaraine that would be crested inside 10km of the stage finish.

In the meantime would be the separate race for the breakaway and the potential for a stage win that came with it. Not surprisingly there were plenty of riders willing to take up the task, motivated that the likelihood that race leader Yates and his Mitchelton-Scott teammates would have no interest in policing a gap too closely.

And so it proved. After some initial jockeying for position a large group of 26 combined their efforts and quickly built a lead of around 8 minutes over the peloton.

Usual suspects

Some of the names you would have put money on to be involved at the start of the day: Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) was there, as was Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Alessandro De Marchi and Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), a former Vuelta winner but well down the order this year.

At 17th overall, Majka did have some interest in the GC battle, but the highest placed rider overall in the group was in fact Team Sky’s David De la Cruz, 12’01” down in 16th place. The Spaniard certainly wasn’t going to ride himself into contention for a podium, but still had plenty to gain by staying clear.

Likewise De Gendt, whose relentless involvement in this sort of breakaway has brought him into real contention of taking the mountains jersey from an out-of-sorts Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis).

Sure enough the Belgian took both the first two 3rd category climbs of the day, bringing himself to within a point of the blue polka dot jersey with still four more climbs to go.

With 100km now in their legs the peloton finally started upping the tempo to start eating into the breakaway's large advantage. 

De Gendt duly made it three out of three on the next climb, the 2nd category Alto del Balcon de Bizkaia, the five points on offer putting him into the virtual polka dots.

By now Mitchelton-Scott's efforts had cut the gap to the break to under 5 minutes, with 25km of increasingly tough riding remaining.

The breakaway finally started to splinter on the next short, sharp shock of the 3rd category Alto de Santa Eufemia (137km). De Gendt, a feisty-looking Nibali and Simon Clarke (EF-Drapac) were driving the pace at the front, while Lopez's Astana ranks started having the same effect in the peloton behind.

De Gendt again took the spoils at the top, then it was more of the same on the Gontzegaraine, yet that would be the last time he would feature at the sharp end of affairs, his job done for the day with the mountains jersey secured.

A quick descent followed, then it was straight onto the final climb, the feared Alto del Balcon. The breakaway still held a 4 minute gap with just 7km to ride, making it all but certain the stage winner would come from their number.

But which of them would be the strongest? Clarke was first to have a go, knowing he had a strong teammate also in the break in Michael Woods. The move was neutralised, but it was clear there were many riders who fancied their chances.

Then BMC pair Teuns and De Marchi took over, while behind the peloton themselves started the climb, with Astana still giving everything to hopefully set Lopez up for glory.

Yates still had a couple of teammates in attendance, but the more the gradient increased the less that would matter. But the red jersey was looking strong going into the biggest test of his race leadership to date. 

Up front the switch to cement heralded the start of the real punishment. Still the group was largely still intact, but the increasing gradient took an increasing toll. Woods was looking increasingly strong with Teuns in his wheeltracks. 

Valverde was the first of the big men to make a move, Movistar pushing on with two cards to play in the top five of the GC. Impressively, though, Mitchelton-Scott's Jack Haig responded on behalf of Yates, then took to the front with the effort neutralised.

However, if Movistar were planning a one-two attack, the plan fell apart when Quintana started to drift off the back of the group, and this with the hardest part of the climb still to come.

By now the leaders were on the worst 24% part of the climb, and now De la Cruz hit the front, with Teuns and Woods and a struggling Majka just hanging on behind.

Clearly these four would fight for the win between them. De la Cruz attacked and initially only Woods could respond, but Teuns and Majka were able to regain contact with 1km to go.

Majka attacked, then Woods, then Teuns, then Woods again. It was torture all the way to the line, but the Canadian held on as the final metres took the race into thick fog to claim a hard-earned victory.

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