La Vuelta Stage 18: A Brutal Climb Makes Its Debut

The Vuelta wrapped up its mountain lineup with a brutal, brand-new ascent that proved to be an instant classic and added intrigue to the podium battle

The Vuelta a España’s Queen stage, finishing atop the brand new summit finish for the race, the brutal Altu d'El Gamoniteiru, was won by Miguel Ángel López, who surged clear of an elite group of GC contenders with 4-kilometers remaining, and drifted through the ethereal, fog-covered landscape to finish ahead of race-leader Primož Roglič and Enric Mas.

The racing for most of the monarchical stage might have been slightly upstaged by the action seen on yesterday’s less-regal parcours, but, Egan Bernal, who is leaving no stone unturned in his quest for overall victory, unleashed an attack roughly halfway up the final climb. Like yesterday, he was marked closely by Roglič, and counterattacked by López shortly after, but the Giro d’Italia champion was held strong in the elite chase and his initial made sure we got to watch the overall contenders duke it out amongst the fog and menacingly craggy features along the comically narrow roads laid out on the imposing mountain.

We might not have needed any more evidence but we got to see once again that Roglič is simply the strongest rider at the race, while Mas is just slightly off-the-pace behind him. But, López’s move, which netted him 32-seconds on Bernal and 1’08 on Jack Haig, his two biggest competitors for the final podium spot, has kicked off what should be a fascinating storyline to watch unfold as we enter the race’s homestretch.

Stage Top Five:
Miguel Ángel López +0
Primož Roglič +14
Enric Mas +20
Egan Bernal +22
Jack Haig +58

Stage GC Time Gaps w/Time Bonuses:
Lopez +0
Roglic +18
Mas +26
Bernal +32
Haig +1’08
Kuss +1’16
Yates +1’17

Current GC Top Ten:

Stage 18 Race Notes:

125km: The massive breakaway has a 4’05 advantage, which, in theory, could be enough to see them stay away to contest the win, but Jack Haig, sitting in 4th overall, sends his Bahrain team to the front to set a hard pace and keep the gap in the check. This is strange since this action should be taken by either the race leader or the team of the rider looking to take the race lead.

26.8km: Michael Storer, the revelation of the race, has broken away from the rest of the breakaway and is by himself 2’15 off the front. Oddly, UAE comes to the front to increase the pace. Their highest placed rider is David de la Cruz in 13th place and realistically can’t win the stage with such a difficult final climb. I guess this means they are trying to make the race hard to get De la Cruz into the top ten overall. Still no sign of the Movistar duo or Ineos.

13.1km: With his teammate, Michael Storer, off the front, Romain Bardet attacks over the penultimate climb to take KOM points and defend the jersey from Storer, and then, insanely, proceeds to attempt to chase down his own teammate at the start of the final climb. He had taken his earpiece out with around 50kms-to-go, but he finally gets the call that he has to sit up ASAP, and we can see that he isn’t excited about having to sit up and go back to the group.

10km: David de la Cruz attacks, which isn’t particularly significant except to Louis Meintjes and Wanty, who are currently sitting 10th place overall.

6.9km: This means we have Wanty, a very small team with a rider in 10th place overall, setting a hard pace deep into the final climb of the final mountain stage. Even crazier is that Bahrain is the team behind them, while the teams/riders who need to take time to win the race are sitting further back. This shows just how highly valued overall podium and top ten finishes are and how the battle for them can shape the race.

6.8km: We can see Roglic is only focused on Bernal and is sitting towards the back of the bunch right on his wheel. This tells us that out of all the so-called contenders, Roglic only considers one other rider a true threat.

4.8km: Roglic is proven correct when Bernal attacks. Just like yesterday, he is right on his wheel.

4.3km: Unlike yesterday, a small group can follow Bernal, but his teammate, Adam Yates, is distanced along with Jack Haig and Meintjes.

3.9km: Bernal’s initial move sets up a counter-attack from Lopez, who takes off and nobody even tries to follow. Behind, Kuss is setting pace on the front for Roglic, who likely sees no point in following and only needs to limit the gap.

2.7km: Lopez is flying and quickly catches/passes de la Cruz at the front of the race. The way he almost pauses before catching Cruz, and then explodes by him to ensure that he can’t grab his wheel, is textbook and what the chase group needed to do to Bernal on yesterday’s final climb.

2km-1.3km: Roglic accelerates to split the main GC group and we see that Bernal and Mas, the only riders who can follow him, are the strongest. Upfront, Lopez finally starts to slow down on the extremely steep and narrow pitches near the top.

1.1km: Bernal, who needed to reel in Lopez to have a shot at the podium, accelerates as they approach the final kilometer. This will further distance Yates, but at this point, Ineos doesn’t have the option of Bernal sitting up and waiting for a rider sitting 7th place overall.

Finish: Lopez wins but is almost completely obscured by the thick fog. Just a few seconds later, Roglic surges over the line with a slight gap to Mas and Bernal.

Ten Takeaways:

1) Lopez puts in perhaps the ride of his career on a brand-new, but instant-classic climb.

  • The last major race he won was the extremely steep Col de la Loze stage at the 2020 Tour de France, and he clearly has a talent on long, steep climbs, when his extremely lightweight gives him a watts per kilo advantage.

  • And perhaps the lack of strategy and tactical riding on these steep climbs help Lopez, who has struggled with the strategic aspect of racing throughout his career.

  • The time he gained is probably just enough to see him hold the final podium spot in the final time trial.

2) Barring a major accident, Roglic likely won the Vuelta today. Judging by his acceleration with 2km-to-go, it seems he wanted to reel in Lopez for another stage win.

  • Of course, he could have tried to respond when Lopez attacked, but the benefits of this would be almost nonexistent. He went incredibly deep to win the stage yesterday and blowing up after responding to Lopez could have been catastrophic.

  • The fact that he was able to drop Mas and Bernal and close 14-seconds to Lopez inside the final kilometer after his massive effort yesterday is incredibly impressive and will give him and the team confidence heading into the final few days.

  • Watching him attack on the final climb and attempting to mow down Lopez for stage wins is very refreshing since the safe move would have been to just enter a turtle-like defensive position.

3) Bahrain’s all-day pacemaking looked incredibly strange, but Haig said the team wanted to make the day hard to test the legs of his podium rivals in an attempt to crack them on the final climb.

  • I heard a theory that this was an attempt to make the entire day so hard that it blunted the legs of the top riders on the final climb since Haig can’t climb with the rest. I guess this could be true, but it seems slightly half-baked since make the entire day hard will just make it more difficult for a powerful, but heavier, rider to hold the pace on the final climb Also, despite his bigger size, Haig has been pretty dang good on the summit finishes so far.

  • The more likely scenario is that Haig wasn’t bluffing and Bahrain wanted to make the pace hard to deter a long-range attack from Lopez, or, in the case that Lopez is on a bad day, shake him loose early on the final climb.

4) This stage does a great job of showing that despite claims to the contrary, the time you can gain on a single final climb, even a brutally hard one like the Altu d'El Gamoniteiru, is limited.

  • Lopez rode about as well as anyone can in the climb and only took 18-seconds on Roglic.

  • Compare this to the opening 7km-long TT, where Roglic took 21-seconds on Lopez. Many write off those opening TT time gaps as insignificant, but we are starting to see that they can often equal, if not surpass, the gaps we see on the Queen stages.

  • And in some ways, the over-the-top difficult climbs like today’s Altu d'El Gamoniteiru, or the l'Angliru, can deter attacking and decrease time gaps, since riders can’t afford to attack early on the climb and have to conserve as much as possible until as late in the race.

5) As Roglic showed yesterday when he rode the final climb at roughly the same speed as the chasers, the only way to consistently get large time gaps on a mountain stage in modern cycling is to get up and over a mid-stage climb with a gap, and then drive it open on the descent and an ensuing flat portion.

  • In the two biggest mountain stages of the race, the time gaps between Roglic and the top contenders were as follows:
    Roglic +0
    Lopez +1’25
    Mas +1’55
    Bernal +2’16

  • These aren’t insignificant gaps, but they will likely end up being less than the gaps we see in the 40-kilometers of time trialing in the race.

  • Also, Roglic took around 1’34 on every contender except Bernal on the penultimate climb, descent, and flat run-in to the final climb on stage 17, which means the time he technically pulled out on yesterday’s final climb was only around 9-seconds.

6) Assuming Movistar knows that the time one can take on the final climb is limited, then we can guess that they essentially gave up on racing for the win as soon as Bernal attacked and was followed by Roglic with around 65km-remaining on stage 17, and then made no effort to attack or make a move to get one of their two leaders off-the-front before the final climb on stage 18.

  • This is undeniably lame for viewers, but from a team perspective, there isn’t anything particularly wrong with this tactic, since getting two riders on the podium behind Roglic is no easy feat.

7) Once again, despite other riders being closer to Roglic in the GC, Egan Bernal is the only rider to attempt to attack him.

  • His move actually ended up backfiring slightly, since it served as a launchpad for Lopez, who he needed to take time on, but ultimately, I don’t think Bernal cares much about a podium finish here. He has already won a grand tour this year and I think is only interested in racing for the win.

  • We should consider ourselves lucky he feels this way since his all-or-nothing style is one of the only things keeping the race interesting since everyone else is now fighting for lower placings.

8) There was some chatter that Bernal shouldn’t have been attacking and pacing after Yates was dropped but, of course, he couldn’t sit up and wait for his teammate and allow Lopez to continue to take time on him

  • Having two riders finish 6th & 7th is difficult, but from a macro perspective, is almost meaningless.

  • This does a great job of showing that a team can’t ride for two mid-table leaders, and Ineos has been struggling with this since stage 2, when Bernal and Ineos paced away from Yates, who was caught up in a crash.

  • And since stage 9, when Yates rode away from Bernal, the two have been trading the same time gains/losses back and forth, which again shows the flaw in the team’s strategy.

  • If they were serious about a podium finish, the last two days, where Bernal has been much stronger, proves that they likely needed to back him from stage 1.

9) The stage was a testament to how the importance, or at least perceived importance, of a top ten overall finish, can warp the race.

  • Bahrain (4th), UAE (11th), and Wanty (10th) did more pacing on the front than Jumbo (1st), Movistar (2nd/3rd), and Ineos (6th/7th).

  • If Wanty hadn’t had paced to defend Meintjes 10th place overall, I’m not sure any other team would have taken it up and we might not have seen any gaps until the final few hundred meters in the lead group.

10) Michael Storer had an impressive day out front, but the attack from his DSM teammate Romain Bardet on the penultimate climb, which really lifted the pace in the group behind, was truly bizarre.

  • I have to imagine that Bardet, who had ripped his earpiece out long before, was upset Storer had taken the KOM lead from him mid-stage and was trying to bridge up to him, drop him and win the stage.

  • It is common to see some disjointed team riding (Bernal dropping Yates), but you rarely see tensions boil over in public as we saw with Bardet and DSM.

  • It will be very interesting to see how the battle for the KOM jersey between Bardet and Storer plays out in the final two road stages.

Stage 19 Preview & Predictions:

The peloton will almost certainly be treated to a near rest day on tomorrow’s 191-kilometer stage.

  • The parcours couldn’t be more perfect for a breakaway, and I have to imagine a massive group of non-threatening riders will get clear as the GC contenders take it easy behind.

  • The climb at the start of the day in theory could make things tough if a team gets aggressive, but it is followed by rolling to downhill terrain that would neutralize any GC attack.

  • Also, Dylan van Baarle and Carlos Verona dropped out of the race today, likely due to injuries they sustained in a recent crash, so Ineos and Movistar, Roglic’s biggest challengers, are down to just five riders each. This will severely limit their ability to attempt a transition-stage raid like we’ve seen at recent Vueltas.

  • DSM teammates Bardet and Storer will likely be battling each other for points on the day’s early classified climbs.

  • Prediction: Magnus Cort gets into the breakaway and wins his third stage of the race. There is no change in the GC competition.