RIAZA, Spain (AP) — Nicolas Roche of Ireland won the hilly 18th stage of the Spanish Vuelta on Thursday, while Dutchman Tom Dumoulin protected his slim lead over Fabio Aru.
Dumoulin responded to Aru's repeated attacks on the final ascent to keep his three-second advantage over the Itailan with three days to go until the finish of the Grand Tour.
"A second for every day," Dumoulin said. "It's very little time and a lot can happen in the coming days."
Roche beat fellow escapee Haimar Zubeldia in a sprint to the finish line to complete the 204-kilometer (127-mile) ride from Roa to Riaza in just over five hours.
"Zubeldia is a very strong and experienced rider, I have lost many sprints to him," Roche said in Spanish. "I tried to go first and to control the speed, and it worked."
Roche, son of former cyclist Stephen Roche, had to be attended by medics for a wasp sting after the stage.
"I was afraid of the bug! Well, I am exaggerating, but I touched it and it stung me," Roche said. "I thought it would be bad luck!"
Dumoulin took the lead of the general classification by erasing a deficit of almost two minutes by winning Wednesday's individual time trial.
Back in the peloton on Thursday, Aru's Astana set a hard pace and succeeded in shedding Dumoulin of his Giant-Alpecin teammates. But Dumoulin stayed pegged to Aru's wheel on three separate attacks going up the final category-one ascent, while the rest of the top 10 riders in the general classification took turns trying their luck only to be reeled in.
Feeling fit, Dumoulin even saved a little spurt to then turn Aru and company into chasers.
"It was a difficult day, but I am still in red," Dumoulin said. "(Aru) was strong, but I knew how to keep the red jersey. He spent some energy in those attacks, and when (Davi) Moreno went I followed his wheel, so I did the little counterattack."
The race appears to be down to a two-man contest with third-place Joaquim Rodriguez still 1 minute, 15 seconds behind, and fourth-place Rafal Majka 2 minutes, 22 seconds back.
Friday's stage is another rolling 185.5-kilometer (115-mile) route from Medina del Campo to Avila.
The race ends in Madrid on Sunday.
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