After a flattish couple of days in terms of morale, Bradley Wiggins (Sky) has started feeling more optimistic about the Vuelta and is now looking to see what he and team-mate Chris Froome can achieve in the last part of the race.

“There’s a lot left to play for, I’ve realised that we’ve got a chance. I felt a bit pessimistic on Monday, but not any more,” Wiggins said at the start of stage 18 of the Vuelta on Thursday.

With four stages remaining, Froome is 13 seconds back on Cobo, and if that gap remains the same it would be the fourth smallest margin ever in the Vuelta (the smallest for any Grand Tour was when Alberto Fernandez lost the Vuelta in 1984 to Erik Caritoux by six seconds).

However, neither Wiggins nor Froome nor their directors are prepared to sit up and let their opportunities to attack Cobo go by.

“We’ve got two cards to play, still, and we’ll use them both,” Servais Knaven, Sky’s sports director, told Cycling Weekly.

“It’s a very close finale, but we saw last year in the Vuelta where it was [winner Vincenzo] Nibali against [Ezequiel] Mosquera that that is pretty normal here. That came down to the second last stage.”

“In fact, that’s what you see more and more in Grand Tours. It’s exciting.”

“Froomey has never led a Grand Tour, but he’s got a lot of experienced stage racing riders around him, not just Brad, but also Dario[Cioni], Xavier Zandio and [Thomas] Lofkvist.”

“Yesterday was the best chance he had and he did it perfect, even if he didn’t manage to win.”

Asked if they would go on fighting for the time bonuses on the last – usually ceremonial – stage in Madrid if necessary, Knaven replied, “of course, if it’s still possible, we will.”

Today’s last 10 kilometres of the course is flat, exposed and technical, running alongside the beach at Noja with a couple of very narrow right-hand corners. Fortunately it is still dry, which should reduce the risk of crashes and nor are there any dodgy deviations in the final kilometre, so there shouldn’t be the same kind of confusion in the finale like there was with the roundabout in Haro.

Sandwiched between the first category climb of Alisas mid-stage and the finish are a couple of third category climbs which local journalist and former pro Enrique Cima rates as being “much more difficult than they say in the route book.”

“They’ve downrated them to third category because they don’t want this stage to look too hard,” Cima told Cycling Weekly, “but in local races the climbs are classified as second category. If the first cat. climb causes the peloton to split, they could be important.”

Related links

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Latest news

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Wiggins and Froome in ‘enemy territory’ on stage 17

Confusion reigns in Vuelta stage as riders tackle roundabout wrong way

Sky uses rest day to regroup before final leg of Vuelta

Wiggins upbeat despite losing Vuelta lead on Angliru

Crunch time for Wiggins and Froome in Vuelta

Wiggins says he will give it 100 per cent to defend Vuelta lead

Vuelta tackles unknown mountain top finish today

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Dan Martin delighted with King of the Mountains jersey

Sky dominates in Vuelta a Espana

Martin delighted with first ever grand tour stage win

Wiggins: A fantastic finish

Interview: Wiggins looks ahead of crucial three days of Vuelta

Farrar taken to hospital after Vuelta crash

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Vuelta a Espana 2011: Teams, riders, start list

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Who’s riding?

Vuelta a Espana 2011 team list

Vuelta a Espana 2011
: Stage reports

Stage 17: Froome wins Vuelta stage 17 but can’t unseat Cobo from race lead

Stage 16: Haedo wins confusing stage 16 finish in Vuelta

Stage 15: Wiggins loses race lead as Cobo stakes claim for overall on Angliru

Stage 14: Taaramae takes stage as Wiggins puts time into rivals

Stage 13: Albasini wins Vuelta stage 13 as Wiggins hangs on to lead

Stage 12: Sagan takes second 2011 Vuelta stage win

Stage 11: Wiggins takes overall lead as Moncoutie wins stage

Stage 10: Brit Froome moves into overall Vuelta lead after time trial

Stage nine: Martin wins as Wiggins moves further up GC

Stage eight: Rodriguez wins again to take overall lead

Stage seven: Kittel wins chaotic bunch sprint

Stage six: Sagan takes Vuelta stage win in controversial circumstances

Stage five: Rodriguez takes second win for Katusha but Chavanel holds on

Stage four: Moreno wins first mountain skirmish at Sierra Nevada

Stage three: Lastras solos to stage and takes red jersey

Stage two: Sutton grabs stage win to set things right for Sky

Stage one: Leopard-Trek win opening TTT to put Fuglsang in front

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Photo galleries

By Graham Watson

Stage 17 photo gallery

Stage 16 photo gallery

Stage 15 photo gallery

Stage 14 photo gallery

Stage 13 photo gallery

Stage 12 photo gallery

Stage 11 photo gallery

Stage 10 photo gallery

Stage nine photo gallery

Stage eight photo gallery

Stage seven photo gallery

Stage six photo gallery

Stage five photo gallery

Stage four photo gallery

Stage three photo gallery

Stage two photo gallery

Stage one photo gallery

Vuelta a Espana 2011: TV guide

Vuelta a Espana 2011: ITV4 TV schedule

Vuelta a Espana 2011: British Eurosport TV schedule

ITV to show 2011 Vuelta