Evenepoel defends red in emphatic fashion while Gesink is dealt heartbreak

The Jumbo-Visma rider was caught in the final few hundred metres as Evenepoel scored his second stage win.

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A day in which zero punches were pulled in the battle for the Vuelta a España’s red jersey ended with its current holder extending his race lead, making it increasingly likely that Remco Evenepoel will be on the top step of the final podium in Madrid on Sunday.

Stage 18 to the summit of Alto del Piornal saw a huge breakaway group heading up the road, containing a number of talented climbers. When the gap yawned out to eight minutes it indicated stage honours would be won from this group yet that failed to materialise following the GC fireworks that would erupt from behind.

João Almeida attacked from the GC group with more than 80km to go, the sixth-placed rider overall eyeing up the spots of Miguel Ángel López and Carlos Rodriguez both within a minute and a half of him. The young Rodriguez had crashed earlier on in a fall that also took the king of the mountains leader Jay Vine out of the race. More intriguing with regards to Almeida’s attack, his UAE Team Emirates’ colleague Juan Ayuso, occupying the third podium spot, was also only two minutes ahead.

This move forced Astana-Qazaqstan into the chase for López with Movistar also contributing for the second-place Enric Mas, effectively giving Remco Evenepoel and Quick-Step AlphaVinyl a day off patrol duty as their rivals had no option but to take the race to them.

At the foot of the final ascent of the Alto del Piornal, Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Hugh Carthy (EF Education EasyPost), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Élie Gesbert (Arkéa-Samsic), Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma), Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) proved the strongest of the break and were the six to survive off the front. They held a two-minute advantage, with Almeida only 30 seconds ahead of the GC group.

Up the climb, the attacks began. Gesbert made his bid for freedom before he was tagged and passed by Gesink. Behind, Mas attacked, not giving up on his two-minute deficit to Evenepoel but brought back by the race leader. O’Connor, Hindley and Ayuso also chanced their arm before Evenepoel countered Mas and rode up to that trio, the group then coming back together and catching Almeida.

With less than 3km to go Evenepoel hit out again, taking Mas with him and gaining quickly on Gesink. The Dutchman stamped the pedals in defiance but he was caught with 300m to go, Evenepoel launching his sprint and finishing two seconds clear to also take the 10 bonus seconds on the line. He now leads Mas by 2-07.

“It’s really a new achievement in my life,” Evenepoel said after the finish while warming down. “It was a pretty tough stage with a really hard climb in the final. Early attacks from UAE with Almeida so the race was really hard but we always stayed calm and that’s what I’ve learned the most, to always stay calm. It’s like in the last kilometre we were still 20 seconds from Gesink and we came to him with 300m to go and I went at 200m to go because I knew it was quite flat and in the winter I worked a lot on my sprint after a big effort, it’s paid off.”

Evenepoel explained he’d have rather had the breakaway survive but that winning a road stage to add to his time trial win last week is a special addition to his special Vuelta performance.

“The goal is always to try and let the breakaway go because then the bonifications are gone and in the end I was gone with Enric so then I clicked and decided to go for the stage as well because winning a mountain top in the red jersey is amazing,” he said. “Enric [Mas] is a really fair-play guy. In the end we worked together to go for the stage win because he also wanted to try for it but in the end it was a perfect day. The most perfect day ever.”

Three stages remain and Evenepoel will not celebrate until the final kilometre is complete.

“It’s still not done,” he insisted. “[There’s] still one really hard stage to come, for sure they will attack me. Maybe now it’s even more easy to control it because I feel my legs are really good. This is really good for me and for the team for the last two days…last three days, sorry.”

As for the vanquished Gesink, there will be no slither of redemption for Jumbo-Visma after Primož Roglič’s abandon earlier this week.

“It was a great race until the last 200m I would say,” Gesink admitted. “A really tough day, in the beginning it took some time for the break to go and then I bridged, happy to survive in such a strong group. The guys are so explosive but I have to have my own steady pace. I managed to drop Gesbert but in the end I was just a little short.”

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