Technically a mountain stage, but nothing like the trio of mountain stages they tackled last weekend, this stage was pan flat until the last 25km when the riders took on the Category 2 Alto Monte Castrove twice.
GC rider Robert Gesink dropped out of the race to be with his wife as she underwent surgery, and Tom Boonen was also a non-starter. Fabio Cancellara called his Vuelta to and end as he focuses his sights on the World Championships later on this month.
It was supposed to be a day for the breakaway, but it took almost 60km for a good one to form. FDJ’s Le Bon tried a couple of times along with a handful of others including Philip Gilbert and Jonathan Castroviejo, but the successful breakaway ended up being just three riders.
They included KOM leader Lluis Sanchez from Caja Rural, Le Bon from FDJ and Dupont from AG2R. They never got more than 3″ ahead though as the peloton – tightly controlled by Movistar for most of the day – kept them on a tight leash.
Sanchez leads the mountains classification by 23 points ahead of Valverde, and with 10 points on offer today, 10 tomorrow and 33 on the final mountain day he needed to win at least one mountain today, one tomorrow and a couple of the smaller mountains on Stage 20.
Sanchez pulled it off on the first climb as Le Bon fell victim to the relentless pace being put on by the peloton led by Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff-Saxo. At the top of the climb Sanchez had 24″ on the peloton and found himself alone with Dupont just behind. Shortly behind them was Le Bon and Losada from Katusha.
At the 20km mark all the riders were caught and the peloton was together, with Sky inflicting the punishment at the front of the peloton with five men including Froome putting on a fierce pace on the descent.
At 10km to go the peloton was hurtling along at 62km/h, with Team Sky still on the front of the peloton. Chris Froome leapt from the peloton at the intermediate sprint to try and take the bonus seconds, he managed to take 2″ – despite the efforts of other Movistar riders – to put himself 1″ behind Valverde and second place.
An attack came from the Cofidis rider Le Mevel who was followed by others including Cannondale’s De Marchi who won Stage 4.
Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde went with Aru and Froome managing to get to the front group. With 6km to go Giant’s Warren Barguil attacked and was quickly followed by Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez – the same trio that put so much hurt onto Froom on Stage 16.
While the GC were looking at each other, Barguil attacked again with 5km to go but was quickly brought back as another Cofidis rider, Jerome Coppel, attacked and got a small gap of 9″ from the leaders.
With 3.5km to go the domestiques started to get burned as Aru tried again for a stage victory to repeat his win on Stage 11 to get an 11″ gap on the peloton and soon joined Coppel.
Back to the peloton, Rodriguez attacked and took Froome, Dan Martin, Valverde and Contador with him to be in sight of Aru. Just as Aru came within reach Chris Froome attacked Valverde and the rest of the GC. With 2km to go Froome had made it to Aru in his bid to win the stage as they kept a gap of 11″ back to Valverde.
Contador was quite happily sat on Valverde’s wheel as Valverde tried to reign in Froome and protect his second place. Valverde didn’t look comfortable and wasn’t willing to do all the work, flicking out elbows to his fellow countrymen with him to help him get back to Froome and Aru.
As they came over the top of the climb to a short downhill, the gap increased further as Froome and Aru battled it out for the stage win. Aru went early and Froome couldn’t quite get back to his wheel as Aru crossed the line 1″ ahead of Froome who still got a 6″ bonus.
The Spanish trio behind sprinted for the bonus seconds and Valverde took third to take the last of them on the line.
Stage 18 Results – A Estrada > Monte Castrove
1. Fabio Aru 3(Ita – Astana) :47:17″
2. Chris Froome (GBr – Sky) +1″
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa – Movistar) +13″
4. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa – Katusha)
5. Alberto Contador (Spa – Tinkoff-Saxo)
6. Samuel Sanchez (Spa – BMC) +17″
7. Daniel Navarro (Spa – Cofidis) +33″
8. Daniel Moreno (Spa – Katusha) +48″
9. Damiano Caruso (Ita – Cannondale) +48″
10. Warren Barguil (Fra – Giant-Shimano)
1. Alberto Contador (Spa – Tinkoff-Saxo) 71:38:37″
2. Chris Froome (GBr – Sky) +1’19”
3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa – Movistar) +1’32”
4. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa – Katusha) +2’29”
5. Fabio Aru (Ita – Astana) +3’15”
6. Dan Martin (Ire – Garmin-Sharp) +6’52”
7. Samuel Sanchez (Spa – BMC) +6’59”
8. Warren Barguil (Fra – Giant-Shimano) +9’12”
9. Daniel Navarro (Spa – Cofidis) +9’44”
10. Damiano Caruso (Ita – Cannondale) +9’45”