The rest offered to the riders on Stage 17 was brief and predominately hectic as desperation to bring things back to a sprint finish, swept through the bunch with only 3km left. Today will be stressful once more for those needing to stay well positioned as they attack another summit finish on Stage 18. A pair of Category 2 climbs (the same ascent twice) are the main feature of the 157km trip from A Estrada to the outskirts of Meis, with the uphill approach of Monte Castrove being our race to the summit on the second attempt. The majority of the day will be spent riding parallel to the coast once again, meaning the big GC riders will want to stay at the front of affairs in case any echelons begin to form.
As other remaining days are expected to have a greater impact on the GC than today, it could be a good opportunity for those who fancy a day in the break. The terrain is rolling throughout as it approaches the first of the two ascents, so it could be fertile ground for a good sized and well organised break to gain a healthy lead. No doubt this will be the recipe for a frantic start to the day’s racing, possibly resulting in a large group getting away due to little interest from the sprinters and mild concern from the GC leaders. Regardless of who makes it to the last 5km banner first, they will need to have the traits of a puncheur in order to benefit the most in the final few kilometres of this 7% climb.
Today makes for an incredibly tactical stage of racing, as the mechanics of time bonuses and their effect upon the general classification, may create some interesting moves. In regards to this, Alejandro Valverde is the man to watch should he have the opportunity to take the stage win on the second approach and summit finish of Monte Castrove. While openly eager to take another win for himself and Movistar since Nairo Quintana’s abandonment, the real incentive of winning for Valverde is the 10 second time bonus which his success would also be rewarded with as he looks to distance himself from Chris Froome. Joaquim Rodriguez is certainly aware of just how much this finale suits him, a man renowned for his sharp accelerations over these moderate gradients, he could be the one to beat as Katusha have the depth of support to set him up perfectly for the win. Rodriguez knows he is likely to bear the brunt of the remaining mountain days amongst the favourites, so will identify the day as a possible victory and a few seconds to soften the blow too. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador are going to be keeping a close eye on the afore mentioned duo, unlikely to contest the win, they will however not be dropped greatly on such a short and gentle climb despite accelerations. If he feels like it, Chris Froome could put in an unexpected dig, as it would be interesting to see the other podium hopefuls interpret the chance of the Sky man staying away in the short downhill run to home.
There does still remain a strong possibility that a breakaway could be given the chance to stay out all day and fight amongst themselves for the stage. However, everyone has been made fully aware of just how much Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde want to win here and it seems that we are going to witness the two Spaniards duke it out between them. The lower gradients suit the former better, though he will not like the concluding descent, so will attack early via the efforts of his teammates’ to gain a big enough lead into town, as he will be unable to beat Alejandro Valverde in a sprint. Valverde should be motivated more by the time bonus than another stage win, so will not be an easy pursuer to escape from on Monte Castrove – you could not place a cigarette paper between the two for the win. Due to this summit appearing relatively easier than what the peloton have had to conquer thus far, the likes of Dan Martin might also be seen once more as he strives desperately to take a win at last.
1st Rodriguez 2nd Valverde 3rd Martin