Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) beat Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) in a two-up sprint to win stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana as Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) maintained his overall lead.
Roche ensured it would be a day of double celebration for Team Sky, after Wout Poels’ Tour of Britain stage win, after attacking from the day’s breakaway and prevailing in the cat-and-mouse sprint.
Meanwhile, in what was almost a separate race playing out behind them, Fabio Aru (Astana) repeatedly tried to overhaul his three-second deficit to Dumoulin, but attack after attack was thwarted by the Dutchman.
Roche and Zubeldia were just two riders in a large break which escaped to play out the day’s fight for stage honours, and were together at the front after Roche chased down a lone attack by Cyril Gautier (Europcar).
The gap was not huge – Bart de Clercq (Lotto-Soudal) threatened the top ten sufficiently enough for teams to lend a hand to the chase in the peloton throughout the day – but it always looked likely to be enough.
And sure enough, when Roche and Zubeldia eyeballed each other as they hit the final sprint, what was left of the red jersey group was still almost 40 seconds behind.
That group had been thinned by the efforts of Astana, with Aru burning his team-mates out before trying to rid himself of Dumoulin’s attentions on the day’s steepest climb.
Dumoulin stood by his word of racing the stage at Aru’s pace, not his own, however, and was like a dog on a leash – following every move the Italian made.
The other GC men also tried to attack to boost their own standings but where Dumoulin was not interested in chasing, there was also a rider sufficiently threatened by the moves – instigated at various points by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Mikel Nieve (Team Sky) and Johan Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) among others – who shut it down.
And the end product is Dumoulin still wearing red with now just three stages to go of what has become a remarkable Vuelta a Espana.
Vuelta a Espana 2015: stage 18 – result
1) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Team Sky – 5.03.59hrs
2) Haimar Zubeldia (ESP) – Trek Factory Racing – ST
3) Jose Goncalves (POR) – Caja Rural +18”
4) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +38”
5) Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE – ST
6) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha
7) Pieter Serry (BEL) – Etixx-QuickStep
8) Adam Hansen (AUS) – Lotto-Soudal
9) Gianluca Brambilla (ITA) – Etixx-QuickStep
10) Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale
1) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Alpecin – 73.45.13hrs
2) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +3”
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +1.15
4) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo +2.22
5) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +2.53
6) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +3.15
7) Johan Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE +3.30
8) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +3.46
9) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Team Sky +4.10
10) Louis Meintjes (RSA) – MTN-Qhubeka +6.51