Primoz Roglic teetered in the final ascent but was poised to retain his Vuelta title after keeping the overall lead in the penultimate stage, a 178.2-km mountain trek from Sequeros won by France’s David Gaudu on Saturday.
The Slovenian, who lost the yellow jersey on the Tour de France in the final time trial on the penultimate day in September, was dropped by second-placed Richard Carapaz in the last climb, a 11.4-km effort at an average gradient of 7.1%, but hung on grimly to protect his lead.
Going into Sunday’s 18th and final flat stage to Madrid, Roglic leads Carapaz by 24 seconds although he had begun Saturday’s decisive stage 45 seconds clear of the Ecuadorian. Hugh Carthy is 47 seconds back.
Gaudu, who claimed his second stage win, broke into the top 10 in the general classification with a brilliant ride.
Back down the road Roglic seemed in total control when Carthy was the first to attack with about 4km to go but a brutal acceleration by Carapaz 3km from the line left the Jumbo Visma rider stuck to the tar.
As the light faded on the Alto de la Covatilla so did Roglic’s hopes as his virtual overall lead began to evaporate.
When Carapaz cut it to 16 seconds it seemed that Ineos Grenadiers might pull off a second unlikely Grand Tour victory in succession after Tao Geoghegan Hart’s amazing Giro d’Italia win a fortnight ago.
But Caparaz plateaued and Roglic, helped by team mate Lennard Hofstede, found something extra in the last kilometre to edge closer to putting his Tour de France heartbreak behind him as Sunday’s ride to Madrid should be a mere procession.
“It’s always good to have some exciting finishes but I had just enough so that I knew that if I rode at my own tempo then it should be enough,” said Roglic.
“I wasn’t always in control but then in the end at some point you need to stay in control and just do your thing. For sure having Hofstede, every metre that he could do, it was a really nice job from the whole team.
“What can I say, I’m super happy, and it’s a really nice way to finish the season.”
David Gaudu produced a sensational final climb to catch and pass Gino Mader and Ion Izagirre and cross the line 28 seconds clear of Mader as he moved to eighth in the general classification on his first Grand our as a team leader with Groupama-FDJ.