LA CRUZ DE LINARES, Spain — Remco Evenepoel put on a dominant performance to win the 18th stage of the Spanish Vuelta on Thursday, with overall leader Sepp Kuss comfortably holding on to the red jersey by crossing the line ahead of his closest rivals and taking a big step toward his first major victory.

Kuss moved closer to becoming the first American to win a Grand Tour race in nearly a decade by staying safely within the peloton throughout the 179-kilometer (111-mile) route that took riders through an unprecedented mountain pass at La Cruz de Linares. He prevailed in a late sprint at the top to increase his overall lead over Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard to 17 seconds ahead of the final stages this weekend.

“(It's) getting closer,” Kuss said. "Tomorrow is definitely an easier stage but we have to stay focused, and then for Stage 20 it will be a really long and hard stage. We’re out of the big mountains but there’s always some tough ones.”

Evenepoel, the defending Vuelta champion, moved to the front by himself with less than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) to go and was never challenged again on his way to his 50th professional victory. The Belgium rider from team Soudal Quick-Step crossed the line nearly five minutes ahead of second-place Damiano Caruso for his third stage win in the Vuelta this year.

He made a heart symbol with his hands as he crossed the line, dedicating the victory to his wife.

“I felt I was the strongest on the group, I didn’t have to waste any time and I just had to go. The legs were super good today,” he said. “It’s amazing to finish La Vuelta like this. After my off day in Formigal and Tourmalet, I just had to turn the page and go for stages. I won three of the most beautiful stages from this Vuelta and I take the mountain jersey.”

A poor run in the 13th stage had ended Evenepoel’s chances to contend for a second straight Vuelta victory. The strong finish on Thursday moved him to 13th place overall, more than 27 minutes behind the leaders. He had started the day nearly 40 minutes off the pace.

“It has been an amazing Vuelta even though the GC (general classification) plan didn’t work out,” the 23-year-old Evenepoel said. "I think we can be very proud. To finish with such a good feeling and with such legs shows that I’m still improving and I just had a bit of a bad week in the second week. We should just be happy and proud.”

Three-time Vuelta champion Primoz Roglic, the other rider helping Jumbo-Visma dominate the Grand Tour race in Spain, crossed the line near Kuss and remained third overall, more than a minute back.

The 29-year-old Kuss, who had a stage win at the Tour de France two seasons ago, began as a support rider for Roglic and Vingegaard but took the lead on Stage 8 and has yet to relinquish it. No American has won a Grand Tour event since Chris Horner in the Vuelta in 2013.

On Friday, riders face a 177.5-kilometer (110.2-mile) flat stage that will likely end with a sprint.

The three-week race ends Sunday in Madrid.

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