2018 Vuelta a Espana
There was only ever one script for the 186.1km flat stage through the lush plains of Aragon and into Catalonia – and the breakaway going the distance wasn’t it.
But every now and then the seemingly impossible happens – and Lotto-Soudal rouleur Wallays was the architect of such welcome anomaly.
Part of a three-man break that enthusiastically zipped clear after three kilometres, Wallays and his two fellow escapees – UAE Team-Emirates’ Bystrom and the Dutchman Jetse Bol (Burgos-SM) – never had more than two-and-a-half minutes to play with under a cloudless blue sky of northern Spain.
Theirs seemed like a thankless task, but aided by a strong tailwind, however, the trio maintained a decent gap as the kilometres counted down. Bol was first to fade inside the final 10km but with the leading duo still holding 35 seconds with 5km remaining, Wallays and Bystrom began to believe.
After a disorganised chase, the world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrophe) was forced to open up a last-ditch sprint early on the home straight. But while the Slovakian showman had enough in the tank to hold off double stage winner – and overwhelming favourite – Elia Viviani of Quick-Step Floors, both riders needed another 50 metres to turn things in their favour.
Despite the peloton breathing down their necks, Wallays kept his cool and then darted from the back wheel of Bystrom, holding on for the biggest win of his career and roaring with delight as he crossed the line one bike length ahead of Bystrom.
Sagan, Viviani and the Spaniard Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain Merida) crossed in the same time to complete the top five, with Dutchman Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) – who won when the Vuelta last came to Lleida in 2015 – settling for sixth place.
Those only glancing at the results or looking at the photos of the finish would be forgiven in believing that Wallays had won a bunch sprint. In reality, his coup was far even more unlikely – riding up the road for more than 180km before not only holding off the returning sprinters but having the tactical nous, and the legs, to outfox Bystrom.
It was a move which highlighted the unpredictability of La Vuelta and something fans would never see on a race such as the Tour de France. It would have also been extra sweet for Lotto Soudal to secure their first scalp of the race while denying an expected hat-trick for Viviani of Belgian rivals Quick-Step.
“Everybody was expecting a massive sprint,” said a delighted Wallays, 28. “But I had a crash after the first rest day and I had something on my mind to so something – and one idea was this stage, because everyone expected a sprint, but I knew that if I was good I could upset some riders.
“I knew that Bystrom was the stronger sprinter so I had to wait in his wheel. I wait, I wait, I wait… And I only need to focus on the line, and I go on two-hundred metres. I worked very hard to be selected for the Tour de France, but I wasn’t, so I targeted to be here on the Vuelta and take a stage victory. Here it is, it’s fantastic.”
There were no changes in the general classification as race leader Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) came home safely in the pack alongside his Spanish rivals Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors).
Yates now enters two decisive days in Andorra with a gap of 25 seconds over Valverde and 1’22” over Mas, with the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk(LottoNL-Jumbo) poised at 1’36” and 1’48” respectively.
Tomorrow’s stage 19 takes the riders 154.4km from Lleida to Andorra.
The first of two stages in the Pyrenees takes place over Yates’s home roads of Andorra and sees the riders tackle some rolling roads ahead of a showdown on the Coll de la Rabassa. The Cat.1 climb is the first in this year’s Vuelta to break the 2,000-metre barrier and, at 17km long and an average gradient of 6.6%, should prove a stern test for the British rider’s red jersey credentials.
Yates cracked on the corresponding stage in the Giro to lose the maglia rosa, and while the Rabassa is no Colle delle Finestre, the 26-year-old will be keen to emerge unscathed ahead of Saturday’s far more demanding parcours.