Start location: Pola de Allende
Finish location: La Cruz de Linares
Start time: 12:47 CEST
Finish time (approx): 17:30 CEST
Stretching from the end of the Pyrenees to the west to the Galician Massif to the east are the Cantabrian Mountains. This was the same mountain range where stage 17's giant summits were tackled, including the mighty Angliru, and it will again today host another massive day of climbing.
This stage will also take place within the boundaries of the Asturias region, which is known as Little Switzerland, not just for its many high summits and stunning mountain scenery, but also for its green meadows and lush vegetation. That greenery comes from the fact that there is a lot more rainfall here than in most of the rest of Spain, which might be welcomed by some riders compared with the excessive heat threatened by the southern stages, but means that some of the day’s many descents will be more lairy if the heavens door open – a stronger likelihood now that it’s mid-September.
Stage 18 profile sourced via the Vuelta website
The climbs might not be as hard as the Angliru that rounded-off stage 17's part one of this Asturias double-header, but there are more of them in total, and the stage is considerably longer. The Vuelta a España organisers have up until now been reluctant to design lengthy, attritional mountain stages, with neither yesterday’s stage to the Angliru, nor week two’s to the Tourmalet lasting more than 135km, but they’ve saved the longest until last. With a total of five climbs to come over the course of 179km, you could even say this is a queen stage of sorts; and even if that’s too grand a label, it will certainly pose questions of the GC contenders’ endurance levels that have so far gone untested.
The first and third of the day’s five climbs are too short to have much of an impact, and have been ranked only as category two and three respectively, but sandwiched in the middle is the much harder category one Puerto de San Lorenzo. It averages 8.6% and features many ramps much steeper than that due to its uneven slopes, which, over the course of almost 10km, is guaranteed to wear the riders out and thin out the bunch.
Crested with almost 100km still to ride, the San Lorenzo comes too early in the stage for the GC contenders, who will instead wait until the final double ascent of Puerto de la Cruz de Linares to declare war on each other. It’s never been used before at the Vuelta, so the riders will be grateful to get a feel for it before the final climactic climb of it. The harder gradients come during its first half, averaging about 10% for 5km, and even it's easier final 3km only lets up a little to almost 6%. As the last uphill finish of the race, at the end of what is the last mountainous stage, there will be many late desperate moves by riders almost out of time to move up the rankings.
With this being the last chance for those who excel on long ascents, those who are further down the GC standings will want to target this stage for a victory and leapfrog any of their rivals.
Bahrain-Victorious could look to take the stage win. The team’s GC looked very strong on stage 17, with Mikel Landa nicely delivered to the top of the Angliru with the help of his teammates Wout Poels, Damiano Caruso and Santiago Buitrago. Chipping away at his rivals, sitting now in fifth, this could be another opportunity to break the podium.
Enric Mas (Movistar) would have been disappointed after stage 17, moving down to sixth on the GC, and may choose to target this stage to gain back the time he lost on the final climb. Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) still sits in third place on the GC but lost over a minute and will want to claw some time back as Landa sits just 14 seconds from Ayuso.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) is another rider who excels on such long climbs and may look to hunt down the stage win. But so could Romain Bardet (DSM-Firmench), who has been one of the most active riders through this year’s Vuelta, making a number of attacks in attempts to take a second-stage win. Looking for a second stage win could also be Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) is another contender, but he did put in a huge effort on stage 17, being in the break for the majority of the stage. He’s targetting stage wins and this one certainly suits a rider like him, so could be a prime opportunity for him to add another stage win to his name. But it could be another opportunity for a Jumbo-Visma rider to take a stage win. All three, Sepp Kuss, Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard could win a stage like this. But it seems to be a battle between Roglič and Vingegaard in the Dutch team, so we expect to see another rivalry between the two on the final climbs of this stage.
It's hard to look past Jumbo-Visma at this Vuelta, and with this in mind, we think Primož Rolgič will take another stage win.