Nicolas Roche won stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday, while Tom Dumoulin survived a series of late attacks from Fabio Aru to maintain his slender overall lead.
Roche (Team Sky) outsprinted fellow breakaway companion Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) on the line to take the win, with Jose Goncalves (Caja Rural-Seguros) grabbing third place a further 18 seconds back.
“Zubeldia is very strong and very experienced,” said Roche. “I’ve lost sprints before so I wanted to start the sprint to control the situation. It was a hard for me in this Vuelta because I came here with a lot aspirations, but I really suffered with some crashes. It was not easy to stay in the race but I wanted to try to win a stage. It was complicated, but it worked out today.”
Behind the winners, Aru (Astana) tried no less than six attacks on Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) on the final climb of the Puerto de la Quesera, but the race leader was able to fend each one off and even managed to accelerate on the descent.
Dumoulin stays just three seconds in front of Aru with three stages remaining, while Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) follows in third, 1:15 back.
Dumoulin will now feel more comfortable, having survived what was probably Aru's best chance of taking over at the top.
“It was difficult day, but I am still in red jersey,” said Dumoulin. “Aru made some attacks, but I was watching him, and I could do a little counterattack there in the end. Three seconds are few and a lot can still happen. It will be hard again tomorrow.”
Stage 18 results
1 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Sky 5:03:59
2 Hamiar Zubeldia (Spa) Trek Factory Racing
3 Jose Goncalves (Por) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA 0:00:18
4 Jose Joaquin Rojas (Spa) Movistar Team 0:00:38
5 Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica GreenEdge
6 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha
7 Pieter Serry (Bel) Etixx – Quick-Step
8 Adam Hansen (Aus) Lotto Soudal
9 Gianluca Brambilla (Ita) Etixx – Quick-Step
10 Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
General classification after Stage 18
1 Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin 73:45:13
2 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:00:03
3 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:01:15
4 Rafal Majka (Pol) Tinkoff-Saxo 0:02:22
5 Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar Team 0:02:53
6 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team 0:03:15
7 Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica GreenEdge 0:03:30
8 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Team Katusha 0:03:46
9 Mikel Nieve (Spa) Team Sky 0:04:10
10 Louis Meintjes (RSA) MTN – Qhubeka 0:06:51