The second longest day in the saddle of 2016’s La Vuelta a España, the 200.6km route from Requena to Gandia forms Stage 18 and has the potential to offer a seldom victory for the fastest riders remaining at the race. A hectic scramble to make the day’s breakaway looks certain, with opportunistic riders hoping that the peloton shall struggle to muster a strong enough chase to bring them back before the finish in Gandia. After a lumpy beginning to proceedings, the pack will begin to climb the 13.3km long Category 2 Puerto de Casa del Alto, averaging a modest 3.8% from bottom to top. Though sustaining its rolling profile, the stage actually descends continually down to the finish after they have passed over the day’s sole categorised climb. Eventually returning to flat terrain with only 5km or so remaining, the peloton will once again have to thread their way through several roundabouts and keep a tight leash on any escapees looking to make a late move, as they hit a small incline 4km from the line.
Gianni Meersman has performed far beyond expectations during the race and shall definitely be marked as the favourite to take stage honours if the day ends in a bunch kick once again. His Etixx-QuickStep team still appear strong, providing enough grunt work to control the race and still set Meersman up for the win. The tricky finale will magnify the advantage of possessing a good leadout and there is every chance that no other team will be able to match them in this tiring final week.
Zdeněk Štybar will be the perfect alternative for Etixx-QuickStep if Meersman is not convinced that his efforts are worth investing in a potential sprint finish in Gandia. Despite being the crucial cog in the Meersman train, Štybar might be allowed to join the day’s breakaway and take the pressure off his teammates. The terrain is favourable for the Czech rider and he may even choose to make a late move upon the small incline 4km from the finish if the opportunity appears.
Nikias Arndt is still considered the fastest man still present at this year’s Vuelta, but has been plagued by poor leadouts and recent knee issues as well. With such little form to go on, it is hard to create a strong case for Arndt, yet the potential of a neat run into home clearly places him in contention should the day end in a sprint.
Jempy Drucker turned in a great performance a couple of days ago and will hope to build upon that in pursuit of a stage victory. The BMC rider is talented at looking after himself, relying less so on his teammates than other rivals here and shall hope for a hard race which reduces the size of any potential group contesting the finish.
Kiel Reijnen should be given the chance of taking over from teammate Fabio Felline, hoping he can seize upon the chance to battle it out for the win at his first ever grand tour. The lumpy terrain will potentially improve his odds of winning, drawing similarities with previous professional wins, though the distance could be an issue.
Rudiger Selig caught the eye on Stage 16 and shall be hoping for a repeat performance of his second place at the very least. With a strong team ready to support him, Bora-Argon 18 will definitely be convinced that a stage victory is with their grasp at this edition of La Vuelta.
The breakaway has a very strong chance of staying clear if the right composition of riders and teams forms, hopefully nullifying the need to chase from the group behind. Such riders who could benefit from this are Fabio Felline, Omar Fraile, Moreno Moser, Jan Bakelants, Luis Leon Sanchez, Laurent Didier and Yves Lampaert.
1st Nikias Arndt 2nd Rudiger Selig 3rd Jempy Drucker