Sander Armee wins Stage 18 at La Vuelta

Vuelta a Espana 2017

Stage 18

Belgium’s Sander Armee denied birthday boy Alexey Lutsenko of Kazakhstan to win Stage 18 of La Vuelta as Britain’s Chris Froome extended his overall lead with a strong finish on the tough final climb.

On a day of thrilling spectacle in northern Spain, the red pendulum swung back in the favour of Team Sky’s Froome, who took back 21 seconds on his principal rival Vincenzo Nibali with a telling acceleration at the conclusion of the rolling 169km stage to Santo Toribio de Liebana.

Only Spaniard Alberto Contador and Canada’s Michael Woods could match Froome’s uphill surge in the stunning Picos de Europa national park as the four-times Tour de France champion extended his lead to 1’37” over Nibali, the Italian Bahrain-Merida rider.

Victory in a frantic stage went to Lotto Soudal’s Armee, who dropped fellow escapee Lutsenko in the final kilometre to pick up his first professional win – and deny his Astana rival a second Vuelta stage victory on his 25th birthday.

The 31-year-old Belgium attempted to zip up his shirt before settling for a celebratory punch in the air as he crossed the line after more than four brutal hours in the saddle.

Lutsenko, the Stage 5 winner, came home 31 seconds in arrears after hitting the wall on the ramped finale. Italy’s Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain Merida) took third place a further 15 seconds back before the survivors of the day’s 20-man break trickled over the line in drips and drabs.

Italian national champion Fabio Aru was the first of the big-name riders to cross the line, the Astana rider coming home almost 10 minutes behind the winner and 12 seconds clear of the chasing Froome group.

Aru, who broke clear of the main pack on the second of four climbs, faded in the finale but rose one place to seventh on GC following the shake-up in the wake of Froome, Trek-Segafredo’s Contador and Woods of Cannondale-Drapac.

Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) finished together, four seconds slower than the Froome trio, in their own battle for the final place in the podium. Third-placed Kelderman now trails Froome by 2’17” with Zakarin 12 seconds back.

After a typically attacking display, Contador continued his drive for a podium finish by edging a little closer; the Spanish veteran stays 3’34” behind Froome in fifth place but will feel confident of making more in-roads in the remaining two mountainous stages – most notably Saturday’s decisive showdown on the Angliru.

Despite Aru’s cameo, the day belonged to Froome, who admitted that the stage “worked out perfectly in my favour”.

“It was a really tough stage and a lot of GC guys tried to attack on the penultimate climb. Once we got to that final climb, the team did a really strong pace at the bottom and I think some guys paid for their efforts from yesterday and their attacks earlier on today. [Gaining 21 seconds on Nibali] feels great, especially after a difficult day yesterday. It’s good to bounce back again. The morale is still good, the team is still strong, and we’re just looking forward to getting through these next couple days.”

It was a bad day for Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez, however, after the Astana climber didn’t show the same kind of form that has seen him net two summit scalps – and instead was tailed off on the short-but-sharp 2.2km final climb.

Lopez, in the white combined classification jersey, conceded 37 seconds to Froome as he fell further behind Contador yet stayed in sixth place, with Woods now breathing down his neck.

The rolling stage started on the rugged Cantabrian coast before heading inland ahead of four successive categorised climbs that saw the race blow apart in a feisty final third.

Froome and Contador cross the finish line.

It took over 50km before the break of 20 riders to form – but when it did, the gap quickly pushed the 13-minute mark. Once again, a raft of familiar faces infiltrated the move – including former stage winners Lutsenko, Quick-Step Floors duo Matteo Trentin and Julian Alaphilippe, and the Slovenian Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates).

With 65km remaining, the arrival of the first climb saw Astana, Bahrain Merida and Trek-Segafredo all populate the front of the chasing pack – but it was not until the second climb, the Cat.3 Collada de Ozalba, that the drama really started to unfold.

Armee was the first of the escapees to put in a significant dig in an attempt to flush out those bringing nothing to the party.

Behind, Katusha-Alpecin upped the tempo in such a fashion that they soon had five riders – including Zakarin – ride ahead of the pack, prompting a flurry of attacks from behind. With Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) being distanced – not for the last time, either – Aru zipped clear, provoking a response by Contador.

Soon the peloton was whittled down to just 30 riders after a frantic chase in response to Aru’s attack – although order was quickly restored by Froome and his Sky pacemakers: Wout PoelsGianni Moscon and Mikel Nieve.

On the Cat.2 Collada de la Hoz, Armee rode clear of the break alongside Alexis Gougeard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) before being joined by Lutsenko, Visconti, Alaphilippe, Jose Joaquin RojasMarc Soler (both Movistar) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC).

Meanwhile, Aru made some serious inroads behind – the Italian cresting the summit almost one-and-a-half minutes clear of the main Sky-led pack, with Froome forced to weather yet more attacks from the sprightly Contador and Lopez.

Following a quick descent, a trio formed out ahead when Lutsenko, Armee and Alaphilippe rode clear from the eight-man group with 10km remaining. On the attack for the second day running, Alaphilippe was first to falter, leaving Armee and Lutsenko to ride clear and instigate a tense game of cat-and-mouse ahead of the final climb.

Both the Belgian and the Kazakh refused to set the tempo at the start of the climb, forcing each other to take pulls before the final kilometre. Then, as the incline got steeper, Armee cut out the mind-games and let his riding do the talking – the 31-year-old surging clear of his younger opponent, who did not have the climbing legs he displayed in Stage 5 to Alcossebre.

Armee proved by far the strongest – although he didn’t have the strength to zip up his jersey ahead of a well-earned victory: his first as a pro.

“It’s fantastic,” Armee said. “This is already my eight year as a pro rider.

“I had to wait quite a long time to win a race. I came close a couple of times, I did my work for the team.. but at this Vuelta I get the chance to put myself in a free role and do my own race. It was the third time I was in the breakaway, I felt better and better during the stage and I just went full gas on the last climb.”

Nineteen of the 20 escapees managed to complete the stage before Aru toiled up the final climb to make his small gains on his rivals for the top 10. Just behind the Italian, it was Contador who once again proved the most combative – until the red jersey put in a stinging attack that destroyed Nibali inside the final kilometre.

If Nibali felt the pinch, then his losses were not as bad as the Colombian Chaves who was tailed off on numerous occasions before losing more ground on the final climb. Third in last year’s Vuelta, Chaves now drops out of the top ten at the expense of the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL-Jumbo.

With two competitive stages remaining, the momentum is certainly back with Froome and his quest to secure a rare Tour-Vuelta double. The race continues on Friday with another hilly test – the 149.7km Stage 19, which features four categorised climbs ahead of a fast downhill finish into Gijon.

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