After the drama of yesterday’s individual time trial shook up the general classification, Stage 18 returns to the riders to the open roads and offers up a day likely to instigate typical Vuelta a España style late drama. From the departure in Roa, the route takes the peloton over three categorised climbs during the 204km journey to the finish in Riaza, though the opening two Category 3 ascents should prove to be simple enough ‘bread and butter’ riding for the pack. It is instead the Category 1 Puerto de la Quesera which will catch the eye as the point many will expect the day’s outcome to pivot upon, an ascent tough enough to form an elite group which can launch itself over the other side and into the finish at Riaza; assuming a breakaway is not already an unreachable distance ahead.
Having completed the first 25km of Stage 18, the bunch will be aware of a slight upwards drag which begins pulling them closer to the opening double salvo of categorised climbs. Alto de Santibañez de Ayllón (7.8km avg 4%) comes as the first of these two climbs and is swiftly followed by the Alto del Campanario (6.5km avg 3.9%). From here they drop down and tackle an extended section of acutely rolling terrain, which continually builds towards the base of the day’s final climb. Only a little over 20km shall separate the peloton from the finish as the riders begin climbing the Category 1 Puerto de la Quesera which stands before them. The 10km climb will allow plenty to find their rhythm while ascending thanks to a favourably even gradient, opening with almost 4km of easy slopes which spend most of their time in and around 2%-3% before reaching a kilometre section of 5%. The remaining passage to the top is tilted predominately at 7%, though it softens nearer the summit to resemble a gradient closer to 6% than 7%.
A total of 13km will remain by this point, though this quick descent will only last for about 9km before returning to the flat for a 6km run to the line, of which the second half is essentially poker straight.
Alejandro Valverde is likely to be a name we shall find ourselves repeating during the final stages of this year’s La Vuelta a España, the swashbuckling Spaniard is well suited to these concluding days and will certainly fancy securing another stage win before Madrid. Today does offer such an opportunity to do this, Valverde looked strong in yesterday’s individual time trial and should not struggle to make it over the top of the Puerto de la Quesera in a good enough position to make the most of the following descent and contest the win.
Gianluca Brambilla has looked good enough to challenge for a stage win on several occasions during this year’s Vuelta a España and he could be up for today’s battle too. The Italian is still surprisingly well placed on the general classification and may decide to keep his energy in reserve, rather than join a move, and utilise it later in the week to cement his place in the standings. Brambilla certainly has the required skills to make the most of the fast descent and would be one of the quickest men present in an elite group which comes to the line
Giovanni Visconti will be another fantastic alternative for Movistar to back on a day which will provide the breakaway with a convincing chance of going all the way. Visconti has a great talent for joining an effective move and will not be deterred on a day which is rolling throughout and contains a Category 1 ascent only 2okm from the line. However, the biggest attribute which marks him out as a favourite to win from a break is the Italian’s fantastic turn of pace, a potent sprint which will be difficult to better for many rivals.
Daniel Navarro‘s race thus far has been surpassingly quiet, but the Spaniard still has a good chance of stamping his authority on a stage finale such as this. On a good day, Navarro has the strength to make it over the final climb and could certainly slip off the front of the peloton during the descent, catching the riders napping and soloing to victory.
Simon Gerrans has endured a torrid season of bad luck and injuries, but he states that his focus is still primarily centred upon that of the Richmond World Championship Road Race in Virginia. Stage 18 could be a good day to test the legs before the end of the Vuelta, though the final climb and run into home do not quite suit him as ideally as he would like.
José Joaquín Rojas will be one of the fastest riders in a bunch gallop should an elite group tackle the final kilometres together and is yet another possibility for team Movistar on Stage 18. Rojas is one of the better climbers in regards to the quick men and will find the even gradients of the Puerto de la Quesera simple enough, if the peloton do not strike an intense tempo during the ascent. Much like several names mentioned here, Rojas could even be part of a move which fractures late on in the race and contests the outcome amongst themselves. Ultimately, if the Spaniard is present during a sprint finish, he could prove difficult to beat.
Stephen Cummings has been enjoying a good year and is still going strong at this year’s La Vuelta a España, demonstrated by yesterday’s top ten placing in the individual time trial; one which did not play to his strengths. Breakaways are a well documented penchant of the British rider and Stage 18 fits the bill as another platform for him to strut his stuff and try to bring yet further glory to his team MTN-Qhubeka. Combining his rouleur capabilities with time trial pacing skills, Cummings should make it over Puerto de la Quesera in good condition and attempt to treat the final kilometre of flat riding as a solo prologue ride to the line.
Niki Terpstra looked fantastic in the opening week of La Vuelta, but has surprisingly remained lacking of a stage win up to this point in the race. Either functioning in a breakaway or attempting a late attack on the descent (or even closer to the finish), Terpstra will go into time trial mode and set a difficult tempo in order to bring him back to the group.
Nicolas Roche might prove to be the best man to back for Team Sky, in order to reduce their requirements at the front go the peloton during the day. He has been the most active rider in the roster so far, making it into various moves and appears to have exited the three day run of mountain stages in good enough condition to feature here.
1st Stephen Cummings 2nd Nicolas Roche 3rd Giovanni Visconti
Outsider: Gianluca Brambilla