Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) moved closer to overall victory at the Vuelta a España after a tumultuous stage to the Alto de Piornal. The red jersey outsprinted his closest rival Enric Mas (Movistar) to win stage 18 after they had caught lone escapee Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) within sight of the line.
The stage was animated by a daring assault from UAE Team Emirates, who dispatched João Almeida up the road with almost 100km remaining. The Portuguese rider’s long-range effort spread a degree of panic among the podium contenders, but Evenepoel looked utterly unflappable throughout a breathless day of racing.
A fragmented race began to come unsteadily back together on the final climb, where Evenepoel responded promptly to a series of accelerations from Mas. The Belgian also took care to unleash a brace of stinging efforts of his own as the red jersey group constantly fragmented and reformed in the closing kilometres.
Mas’ final surge came deep inside the final kilometre, with Evenepoel the only man able to follow. That acceleration brought them up to Gesink, the last survivor of the day’s early break, and there would be no gifts from the red jersey as he sprinted to stage victory.
Evenepoel came home two seconds ahead of Mas and Gesink, with Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) leading the chasers across the line at 13 seconds.
“It’s really, a new achievement in my life,” Evenepoel said of his second stage win at this Vuelta. “It was a pretty tough stage, with really hard climbs in the final, and there were early attacks from UAE with Almeida. The race was really hard, but we always stayed calm. That’s what I’ve learned the most, to always stay calm.”
In the overall standings, Evenepoel is now 2:07 ahead of Mas, while Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) is third at 5:14. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana-Qazaqstan) moves up to fourth overall after Carlos Rodriguez (Ineos), faller early in the stage, conceded ground on the final climb.
Rodriguez was part of a multi-rider crash after 15km, and his injuries would eventually tell on the dual ascent of the Piornal. Although he dragged his way back into contention after being distanced on the first ascent, he was definitively dropped as Evenepoel and Mas swapped accelerations on the final climb, eventually 1:19 to drop to fifth overall.
King of the mountains Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck) came down in the same crash as Rodríguez and was forced to abandon the race due to his injuries.
The pace, already high at the time of the crash, scarcely relented thereafter, with a break of some 38 riders forging clear. Gesink, Richard Carapaz (Ineos), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Elie Gesbert (Arkea-Samsic), Hugh Carthy (EF-EasyPost) and Sergio Higuita (Bora-Hansgrohe) were the last men standing at the base of the final climb, but they were unable to withstand the fightback from the GC group – and Mas and Evenepoel in particular – on the Alto del Piornal.
Mas made a point of apologising to Gesink past the finish line, though the Dutchman was magnanimous. “No worries,” he smiled as he spoke to reporters in the mixed zone.
“Enric is a really fair play guy, and in the end, we worked together to go for the stage win,” said Evenepoel. “In the end, it was a sprint, and I think it was a great race from the team. A perfect day. This was the most perfect day ever.”