Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali clung on to his narrow lead in the Vuelta a Espana after a grueling 18th stage on Thursday.
Sky Pro Cycling’s Belarussian rider Vasil Kiryienka won the stage after breaking away at the end of the 186.5km ride from Burgos to Pena Cabarga, Spain, that featured five categorized climbs, including a tricky final ascent.
The climb to the summit of Pena Cabarga almost cost Nibali his lead atop the general classification, which was cut to just three seconds. The Sicilian, who rides for Astana, could not respond to a push by the Katusha team on the final ascent and then an attack by RadioShack Leopard Trek’s 41-year-old rider Chris Horner of the US, who was sixth across the finish line.
Nibali, who finished 10th, 25 seconds behind Horner, also gave away time to Spaniards Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, third in the overall standings at 1 minute, 10 seconds behind, and Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, fourth at 2 minutes, 24 seconds back.
“Horner is very strong, it’s incredible what he’s doing at almost 42 years of age,” Nibali told Spanish television at the end of the race.
“Horner showed he’s one of the great pretenders for this Vuelta,” the Italian said.
“I can’t stress on three seconds right now. I made up a lot of time today and the gap is smaller — that’s what is important to me,” Horner said. “Three seconds. I guess it won’t matter either way if I get dropped on one of the next two stages. We’ll have to see how things go. The team is fantastic, I just can’t thank them enough.”
Kiryienka, who bowed out of the Tour de France in July after missing the time cut on stage nine in the Pyrenees, was one of an initial 15-strong group to break away from the peloton and he attacked in Alto del Caracol, 45km from the finish.
The 32-year-old arrived at the foot of the Pena Cabarga with 1 minute, 30 seconds on his rivals and managed his finish to perfection.
“I woke up this morning thinking it could be a stage for me,” Kiryienka said. “I chanced my arm and there’s the result.”
Yesterday’s 19th stage saw the riders tackle 181km with the finish again at altitude, a demanding first-category climb to Alto del Naranco, before they tackle the infamous Alto de l’Angliru on today’s stage.
“Saturday’s climb is the better day for me, but when you are going against the best guys in the world you have to pay attention on every stage,” Horner said. “Tomorrow could be a game of tactics. I thought I could take the jersey today, but I was three seconds off. I just need to keep my form for another few days to get the red jersey and take it to Madrid.”