Ireland’s Nicolas Roche claimed the 18th stage of Spain’s Vuelta on Thursday as Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin maintained his three second advantage over Italian Fabio Aru in the overall standings.

Roche was part of a 25-man breakaway early in the stage and held off Spain’s Haimar Zubeldia on the descent to the finish to win the 204km stage from Roa to Riaza in a time of 5hr 03min 59sec, with Portugal’s Jose Goncalves in third.

Aru attacked several times on the climb up Puerto de la Quesera just before the finish, but couldn’t distance Dumoulin as all the top contenders finished 38 seconds back.

Giant-Alpecin’s Dumoulin stormed into the lead by winning an individual time trial by over a minute on Wednesday, but showed his growing maturity as an all-rounder to ensure Aru, a more accomplished climber, couldn’t get away to recoup the seconds he needs to claim his first Grand Tour victory.

“It’s going to be three hard days coming up. We survived the first one and we did very well as a team,” Dumoulin told Eurosport.

“Today Aru tried really hard to take the red jersey, but actually I was never in trouble. After his first attack I felt like I would keep the red jersey.

“I was pretty confident. It’s nice to have a strong team behind me and it was a good day.”

Roche’s victory was Team Sky’s first of a race beset by misfortune for the British team.

Tour de France winner Chris Froome was forced to retire after suffering a broken bone in his foot on stage 11, whilst Roche himself suffered a heavy crash when sitting fourth in the overall standings a day earlier.

“Zubeldia is a strong rider who has a lot of experience. I have lost against him in a sprint many times when we have arrived together,” said Roche, who also won a stage at the Vuelta in 2013.

“I knew I needed to do it right and I tried to go from the front to control the speed, and it worked.

“It was very important for the team. We have had some difficult days after the crashes. I came here with high expectations and I had 10 fantastic days and then it was a very difficult blow to take.

“I found it difficult to fight for a while and I wanted to do well for the team as well. Today is a fantastic day.”

Just three stages remain before the gruelling three-week tour around Spain concludes in Madrid on Sunday.

Aru’s best chance of usurping Dumoulin is likely to come on Saturday’s penultimate stage which includes four first category climbs.

Before then the race continues on Friday with a 185.8km ride from Medina del Campo to Avila. – Agence France-Presse

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