Michael Woods wins stage 17 as Yates holds on to red – La Vuelta

2018 Vuelta a Espana

Stage 17

Simon Yates conceded some valuable seconds to principal rival Alejandro Valverde but retained the red jersey in the mist as Canada’s Michael Woods won a thrilling Stage 17 of La Vuelta on the savagely steep slopes of Monte Oiz in the Basque Country.

On a day that Colombia’s Nairo Quintana cracked to drop out of the top five, it was the 2016 champion’s Movistar team-mate Valverde who emerged the biggest obstacle between Mitchelton-Scott’s Yates and a maiden Grand Tour victory.

Veteran Valverde and fellow Spaniard Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) dropped Yates in the mist and melee of fans in the two-hundred metres of the 157km stage from Getxo to take back eight seconds on the race leader.

Yates now leads Valverde by 25 seconds with the impressive Mas up to third at 1’22” after Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk finished alongside Quintana just over one minute off the pace.

Woods, of the EF Education First-Drapac team, emerged the strongest of a 26-man group that at one point held an eight-minute gap over the peloton.

In a four-way battle for the victory on the 25% ramps of Monte Oiz, Woods rode clear of Dylan Teuns (BMC), David de la Cruz (Team Sky) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Gasping for air while battling the brutal gradient of the narrow goat track, Woods held on to take the win by five seconds over the Belgian Teuns, with Spaniard De la Cruz in third and Poland’s Majka fourth.

The remnants of the break – which included the Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), the Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) and the former race leader, Spain’s Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) – arrived in dribs and drabs before Mas crossed the line alongside Valverde, 2’40” down.

Yates came home eight seconds later and two seconds ahead of Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez, whose Astana team had set a fierce tempo at the foot of the final climb.

Quintana, who was dropped by the race favourites with 3km remaining, managed to catch up with the fading Kruijswijk as both riders came home 3’44” down on the man of the day, Woods.

As the old saying goes: you wait years for an EF Education First-Drapac WorldTour win, and suddenly they come one after the other like buses.

A fortnight after Simon Clarke took the Stage 5 win in Roquetas de Mar, Woods has given the team another famous win. Clarke again was instrumental, joining Woods in a large break of 26 riders which formed on the out-and-back loop from Bilbao over the first hour of racing.

Yates dons the red jersey on the podium.

A chasing quintet had eventually joining a stellar cast including the 2010 Vuelta champion Nibali, local Basque riders Omar Fraile (Astana) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky), and three previous stage winners from this year’s race in Alexandre Geniez (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) and Clarke.

With six categorised climbs on the menu, polka dot jersey rivals Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) also got in the mix on a day that the current incumbent, Luis Angel Mate (Codifis), was once again struggling with illness.

Belgian De Gendt picked up maximum points over the first five summits of the day to move 10 points clear on Mate in the KOM standings, with Mollema wolfing down enough scraps to move 14 points down on the new man in polka dots.

Neither rider, however, would feature in the battle for the stage win. Half way up the second ascent of the Alto del Balcon de Bizkaia, the route swung to the left and headed up Monte Oiz on a narrow concrete farm track lined with trees and fervent fans waving Basque flags.

Unluckily for them, local riders Castroviejo and Fraile were unable to keep up with the leaders, while Nibali – who looked very active earlier in the stage – faded fast as the gradient got steeper.

Clarke had put in the first big attack earlier in the climb to pave the way for his man Woods, who now rode clear with BMC due Teuns and De Marchi, Geniez, De la Cruz and Majka.

The steep 25% ramp with 2km remaining acted as a leveller bringing a select quartet together before De la Cruz put in a stinging attack. Woods joined the Spaniard and the two opened up a small gap before Teuns and Majka bridged over as the road flattened out under the kilometre-to-go banner.

Majka and Teuns – who led the way on La Camperona in Stage 13 before being outfoxed by the Spaniard Oscar Rodriguez – put in attacks. But Woods kept his cool to ride clear of Teuns with 500 metres remaining.

Woods, 31, fought the final ramp with his mouth agape, constantly looking over his shoulder at the looming figure of Teuns through the mist. But the former long-distance runner had enough in the tank to secure only his second – and biggest – win since turning professional in 2016.

“Dylan Teuns was riding super strong and there were a couple of times when I thought I didn’t have it but I managed to pull it off in the end,” said an emotional Woods, who dedicated his win to his wife, who he revealed had suffered a stillbirth two months before the race.

Woods also praised the local Basque fans who turned out in their droves on an isolated mountain making its first ever appearance in the Vuelta.

“This is probably my favourite region to race in. I love here, the fans are just amazing, wonderful people. They know every stat about you – your name, when you turned pro, every details. So when you’re coming up the last climb, they carried me through to the finish.”

Michael Woods celebrates after winning today’s testing stage.

Playing out further down the road, the battle for the red jersey and GC positions was animated by the local Euskadi-Murias team, who came to the front of the pack with 50km remaining to help lead the chase for their man Mikel Bizkarra, the current Strava record holder for Monte Oiz.

Astana took over the reins on the penultimate climb as the gap dropped to four minutes and the peloton blew to pieces. Just ahead of the decisive climb, a nasty downhill crash took down Italy’s Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and the Austrian Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain Merida) as riders jostled for positions ahead of the climax to the stage.

Astana’s Pello Bilbao set a blistering pace going onto the second ascent of the Balcon de Bizkaia – and the same rider was burying himself when the race swung onto to final 4km track up Monte Oiz.

But when the attacks came it was not from Bilbao’s team-mate Lopez in the white combined jersey, but the man in green – Valverde.

Yates was able to hold the Spaniard’s wheel alongside his twin brother Adam, while Lopez, Mas and Kruijswijk kept themselves in the mix. Indeed, the big casualty of that injection of pace from Valverde was his Movistar team-mate Quintana, who soon found himself distanced in slow motion, unable to bridge over as the gap got bigger.

Kruijswijk – whose strong showing in Tuesday’s time trial saw him rise to third place and within 53 seconds of the summit – was the next to go as Mas, just 23-year-old and riding only his second Vuelta, put in a series of attacks.

Mas eventually rode clear with Valverde as Yates and Lopez combined forces behind, unable to match their explosive pace.

Just 25 seconds now separate Yates and Valverde on GC – but both riders will be looking over their shoulders at Mas, who is riding with confidence beyond his years a further 57 seconds back. Lopez also rises two places to fourth, at 1’36”, while Kruijswijk and Quintana both drop two and are now at 1’48” and 2’11” respectively.

Tomorrow’s stage takes the riders 186km from Ejea de los Caballeros to Lleida.

Before back-to-back stages in the Andorran Pyrenees, the battle for red goes on hold for this flat stage that will reopen the door to the sprinters and, in all likelihood, a third scalp for Italian champion Elia Viviani of Quick-Step Floors.

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