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61st Vuelta a España - GT

Spain, August 26-September 17, 2006

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Stage 18 – September 14: Granada-Sierra de la Pandera, 153.1 km

Live report

Live Commentary by Jeff Jones, with additional reporting from Shane Stokes

Live coverage starts: 14:30 CEST
Estimated finish: 17:30 CEST

19:30 CEST   
This is a mountainous stage with two hard climbs at the end. The first climb is Alto de las Encebras (Cat. 3 – 1,130 m. above sea level – km 45.6). The other two mountains are very near the end: Alto de los Villares (Cat. 2 – 1,180 m. – km 140.4) and Sierra de la Pandera (Cat. special – 1,840 m. – km 153.1 – finish line). This should be the key stage in this Vuelta a España. Valverde and Sastre will play their probable last cards in order to reduce the distance to Vinokourov, who will do his utmost to attack.

14:40 CEST    40km/113.1km to go
With Paolo Bettini and Danilo Di Luca not starting, there were 136 riders signing on for today's third and final mountain stage in the Vuelta. Let's get it on!!

And they did. At 13:30.

The first to attack was Olivier Kaisen (Davitamon) after 4 km. He was joined by
Nicki Sorensen (Team CSC), Benoît Poilvet (Credit Agricole), Raúl García De Mateo (Relax-Gam), Markel Irizar (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank) and Pierre Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom). They were chased by Iñigo Landaluze, but the Euskaltel rider missed the break and went back to the bunch. At the 26 km mark, the escape had 1'40.

14:42 CEST    46km/107.1km to go
Astana allowed the break 2'52, but Caisse d'Epargne started to get itchy feet and rode to bring the leaders back to 1'30 by the summit of the day's first climb, the cat. 3 Alto de las Encebras. Kaisen was first over the top ahead of Irizar, Sorensen and Poilvet. Sorensen is the best placed on GC of this break, but is nearly 39'00 down so he's no threat to Vinokourov.

14:44 CEST   
43.1 km were covered in the first hour. Milram's Daniel Becke abandoned on the climb, leaving 135 in the race.

14:57 CEST    62km/91.1km to go
The break increases its advantage to 2'33 as Caisse d'Epargne has eased off the chase, allowing Astana to control it. It's in Astana's interests to let these guys get right away and soak up all the bonus seconds, but Vino will still have to be better than Valverde on the final climb to La Pandera.

15:11 CEST    72km/81.1km to go
At the day's first intermediate sprint at Huelma, Poilvet, Kaisen and Garcia de Mateo pass in that order. The sprint points/bonus seconds don't really matter to the breakaways today, apart from a few extra euros for the team coffers.

The peloton is maintaining a good speed and sits 2'40 behind the break.

15:22 CEST   
The action in today's stage is almost certain to all happen on the final climb to La Pandera. It's only a short climb at 8.3 km, but it averages a nasty 8.2%, and it's proceeded by the Alto de los Villares, a cat. 2 ascent.

15:29 CEST    80km/73.1km to go
The break reaches the feed zone, still working quite hard, as the pace is not easy behind. The last time check was 2'05. Both Astana and in particular Caisse d'Epargne will want to set a high tempo to make everyone tired before the last climb. This tends to hurt the pure climbers a bit compared to someone like Vino, who possesses a lot of power on the flat. Even Valverde is a good flat rider, as he can win a bunch sprint.

15:39 CEST    90km/63.1km to go
The pace is relentless, with the second hour also raced at 43 km/h. The breakaways Sorensen, Kaisen, Poilvet, García De Mateo, Irizar, Horrillo and Drancourt have done well and have increased their advantage up to 4'05.

15:49 CEST    100km/53.1km to go
Caisse d'Epargne is working in the peloton to keep the pace high. It's obvious that Valverde is trying to capitalise on Vinokourov's tiredness from yesterday. Vino sits in about 10th wheel in the gold jersey. The gap to the leaders is 3'25 and falling.

15:51 CEST   
Meanwhile, back in the break, Horrillo, Sorensen, Garcia and the rest are working hard to keep their advantage. It's kind of a doomed exercise today, with so much at stake behind. Sorensen might be able to help Sastre on the climb if they stay away.

15:52 CEST   
Caisse d'Epargne has the peloton strung right out at 45-50 km/h. This is probably the last day that they'll have to work really hard.

15:55 CEST    104km/49.1km to go
But the break is also working at 45 km/h, and should get to at least the second last climb.

15:57 CEST   
The bunch crosses over a bridge over a motorway, in hot pursuit of the break. Up front, Garcia de Mateo signals for his team car, and gets something from DS German Nieto.

16:00 CEST    107km/46.1km to go
Today is dry with a few clouds hovering above the riders. Not rain clouds though.

Horrach, Lastras and Garcia Acosta have the bunch in a long line.

16:02 CEST    108.1km/45km to go
Horrillo is a handy man to have in a break, as is Kaisen. They're both big, powerful riders. The gap is still around 3'20.

16:05 CEST   
Our man on the climb, Shane Stokes, reports that it's 11 degrees on top of La Pandera and very misty. There are a lot of frozen looking spectators here.

16:07 CEST    111.1km/42km to go
The break slows to 27km/h as it hits a small climb, while the peloton maintains 41 km/h, 3'31 behind. Vino looks good surrounded by his Astana cohorts. But Valverde, in the white combination jersey, looks like he's ready to fight to the death.

16:08 CEST    112km/41.1km to go
Poilvet slips to the back of the break, and corrects his line to avoid Horrillo's back wheel in front of him. They are on the outskirts of Jaen. Excellent.

16:11 CEST    113km/40.1km to go
The peloton gets within range of Jaen and the road starts to climb. Saunier Duval moves its main man Gomez Marchante up. It's still all Caisse d'Epargne, all the time.

16:13 CEST   
Lastras and Garcia Acosta swap off in front of the bunch, while the break continues to make good progress. So far, the bunch hasn't been able to pull back much time on the seven in front, and it's still 3'21.

16:16 CEST    116km/37.1km to go
The breakaways ride through the streets of Jaen and are applauded by an estimated crowd. 3'02 is the gap, and it's mostly uphill now.

16:18 CEST    118km/35.1km to go
Garcia Acosta does another powerful turn in the bunch, gapping his teammates. Ouch. One of the Caisse d'Epargne riders is no more for this stage.

16:21 CEST    120km/33.1km to go
The break exits Jane, stage left, and begins to climb. The Alto de los Villares will start in a bit, but there's a short descent first.

16:23 CEST   
The gap has come down quite a bit, thanks to Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta who is driving on the front of the bunch. It's now 1'55.

16:23 CEST    121km/32.1km to go
Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon) moves his teammate Chris Horner to the front. The peloton looks rather smaller than it did at the start.

16:25 CEST    122km/31.1km to go
The gap is melting in the sun as Garcia de Mateo tries to keep the pace up. 1'36. Caisse d'Epargne is trying to hurt Vino as much as possible.

Garcia de Mateo attacks - no surprise there.

16:26 CEST    123.1km/30km to go
García De Mateo pumps up and down on the pedals, and is joined by Poilvet, Sorensen and Kaisen. The others fall back. The Relax rider is anything but, and urges the others to work.

16:27 CEST   
Valverde chats with Goubert and Cuesta, sharing a joke.

Meanwhile, Nicki Sorensen attacks the break. Kaisen is forced to close the gap.

16:28 CEST    124km/29.1km to go
The action forces Poilvet out the back. The peloton is bearing down on the dropped riders now.

Sorensen keeps going on his own.

16:30 CEST    125km/28.1km to go
Pereiro and Garcia Acosta work in the bunch, with Zandio, Horrach, Karpets and Valverde in tow.

Sorensen has reached the top of the first little climb, and gets a short downhill before starting the Alto de los Villares. He has 1'44 on the bunch - nice work.

16:31 CEST    126km/27.1km to go
Sorensen rides at 70 km/h on the descent, with Garcia de Mateo, Kaisen and then Poilvet alone in pursuit. The bunch is now on the downhill.

16:32 CEST   
Sorensen is now caught by Kaisen and Garcia de Mateo, while Irizar has found Poilvet.

16:35 CEST    129km/24.1km to go
The trio reach Los Villares, and start to climb again. The crowds are thick here.

They come up to the final sprint, where Sorensen takes the points ahead of Garcia de Mateo and Kaisen.

16:36 CEST    130km/23.1km to go
Poilvet and Irizar pass the sprint point at 34 seconds, and look back for the bunch. Garcia Acosta is driving the peloton again and then Oscar Pereiro takes over.

Horrillo and Drancourt are caught right at the sprint, with the peloton 1'27 behind the leaders.

16:37 CEST   
The pace now goes up a notch with Caisse d'Epargne still hammering with five or six men. Valverde is well protected today, but Vino and Kashechkin are glued to his wheel.

In front, Sorensen is doing most of the work.

16:38 CEST    131.1km/22km to go
Kaisen rolls through for a turn as the Alto de los Villares starts. Poilvet and Irizar are 40 seconds back.

16:39 CEST    132.1km/21km to go
Garcia Acosta gives it a lot of gas at the front of the bunch, and everyone is in a single line behind him. Amazing riding by the old warhorse.

16:41 CEST    133.1km/20km to go
Suddenly, the pace eases off in the bunch under instruction from Valverde. The peloton bunches up for a bit. Maybe too hard, too soon.

Sorensen accelerates again, but the gap is just 1'12. Garcia de Mateo tries but fails to hold the Dane's wheel.

16:42 CEST    134.1km/19km to go
Jose Garrido (Quick.Step) attacks the bunch, passing Poilvet and Irizar very quickly. The pace goes up again in the peloton, with five Caisse d'Epargnes still with Valverde.

16:45 CEST    135.1km/18km to go
Sorensen continues to drive it - he's the most important rider in this break, in case he can help Sastre.

Garrido's effort doesn't last long and the bunch passes him.

16:46 CEST    136.1km/17km to go
Kaisen is caught by the Caisse d'Epargne bunch. Pereiro is doing a lot of work. He pulls off, but then sees his teammate isn't ready, and keeps working. The gap to Sorensen is 55 seconds.

16:47 CEST   
Pereiro pulls over to the right and puts it into "park". Now Arroyo takes over.

16:48 CEST    137.1km/16km to go
Garcia de Mateo is absorbed next, leaving just Sorensen out front with 42 seconds. He's probably not going to be able to help Sastre much today, as the peloton is still relatively big.

16:50 CEST   
Arroyo, Zandio, Karpets and Valverde are the first four in the bunch, then Rodriguez, Paulinho and Vinokourov. 37 seconds to Sorensen. Egoi Martinez is up there, ready to go for mountains points.

16:51 CEST    138.1km/15km to go
There are a good 30-40 riders left in the bunch as Mayo attacks! The Basque rider gets a small gap, and works hard to try to get up to Sorensen.

16:52 CEST   
Mayo goes under 15 km to go just 17 seconds behind Sorensen, then Martinez attacks the bunch in a big gear.

16:54 CEST    139.1km/14km to go
Martinez catches Mayo and goes to the front. Sorensen should be caught soon. Martinez can secure his lead in the mountains competition.

Sorensen sits up. All over? He accelerates to hold onto the other two. It hurts a lot.

16:54 CEST   
Arroyo is still doing the tempo making in the peloton, which rides 20 seconds behind the three leaders. Martinez hammers and Sorensen is dropped.

16:55 CEST   
Mayo glues himself to Martinez' wheel, and really suffers to hold onto the Discovery rider.

16:56 CEST   
Martinez' closest rival in the mountains GC, Pietro Caucchioli, is nowhere to be seen at the moment. The first two placings on this cat. 2 climb will be taken.

16:58 CEST    140.1km/13km to go
The bunch is down to 30 riders. Five Caisse d'Epargnes including Valverde. At least three Astanas, Sastre has teammates, and the Discovery boys are mostly there. Horner is last wheel. The gap is 41 seconds.

17:00 CEST    141.1km/12km to go
Martinez takes 10 points at the summit of the climb, with Mayo still right on his wheel. Third place goes to Arroyo at 42 seconds, then Zandio. Caucchioli has been dropped.

17:01 CEST    142.1km/11km to go
Beltrán and Luis Perez move up behind Vino. The road descends slightly now before the final climb to La Pandera. Mayo is working with Martinez.

17:02 CEST    143.1km/10km to go
The gap falls to half a minute as Martinez obviously gave it a lot of effort to get those mountain points. It will probably be worth it.

Arroyo is continuing on the front, with Zandio and Karpets waiting for their turn to sacrifice themselves for their captain.

17:03 CEST    144.1km/9km to go
The two leaders reach the 9 km to go banner, and the climb will start in less than 1000 metres.

17:04 CEST    145.1km/8km to go
The bunch goes under at 25 seconds, Sorensen now in last wheel. Arroyo lifts the pace even more.

The leaders start the climb to La Pandera, and the road narrows immediately.

17:05 CEST    145.6km/7.5km to go
Arroyo pulls off at the base of the climb, leaving Zandio to ride next. Paulinho has got Vino well protected.

17:06 CEST    146.1km/7km to go
The gradient is a nasty 14 percent here. Danielson starts to move up a bit, before Luis Perez launches the first attack. He will catch Mayo and Martinez very quickly.

17:08 CEST    146.6km/6.5km to go
Perez catches Martinez, as Rodriguez bridges the gap with Valverde and Vino on his wheel on a 15 percent section. The bunch shreds quickly to a dozen riders.

17:10 CEST   
Gomez Marchante attacks first but is hindered by a moto. He's caught. Rodriguez hammers and the group looks like this: Vino, Valverde, Rodriguez, Perez, Sastre, Beltrán, Devolder, Kashechkin, Gomez Marchante, Piepoli, Sanchez, Anton, Szmyd. But Karpets and Cuesta have returned.

17:11 CEST    147.1km/6km to go
Karpets gives it full gas and Rodriguez and Valverde take his wheel. Vino looks good, but he needs to attack because there are bonus seconds at stake. They pass 6 km to go. Devolder looks quite good. Danielson is nowhere to be seen, but that is understandable.

17:11 CEST   
And Kashechkin attacks! Sastre counters and takes the Astana rider's wheel.

17:12 CEST    147.6km/5.5km to go
That causes the group to split, and now it's on again. Kash rides tempo for a bit, then stops. Rodriguez back on the front and Vino attacks!

17:13 CEST    148.1km/5km to go
Vino yells at the motos to get out of the way as he powers along behind them. Valverde doesn't, or can't react. Rodriguez does. But Kashechkin lets a gap go. Nice work. Rodriguez tries to bridge the gap, then sees Valverde is dropped. Stops. Gomez Marchante and Anton are next in line.

17:15 CEST    148.6km/4.5km to go
Gomez Marchante is now chasing alone, and all hell breaks loose. Valverde is in trouble. Vino already has 16 seconds on Gomez. And doesn't he know it.

17:16 CEST   
Kash and Sastre close to Gomez Marchante on a murderously steep section. Vino puts his head down, selects a low gear, but keeps it going. It's hurting. Valverde is chasing with Devolder, Rodriguez, Piepoli and Anton.

It's windy here too. Not easy.

17:17 CEST    149.1km/4km to go
Devolder struggles on the steep gradient, but Valverde is not much better today. He's already 36 seconds behind Vino. That could be the Vuelta.

17:18 CEST   
Vino rocks back and fourth in his gold jersey, and you can tell he's giving it everything on his climb. The damage behind is fairly serious. Gomez M is leading his trio with Kashechkin following easily, and Sastre clinging on. It's 16% here!

17:19 CEST   
Gomez Marchante checks back and sees the chasers are in bits. Sanchez is returning to the Valverde group, which is still 32 seconds behind Vino. The Astana rider is definitely hurting a lot. It's not in the bag yet as he shifts gear, looks back.

17:21 CEST    150.1km/3km to go
Valverde now accelerates on a 17% section. He gets plenty of support from the fans. This is an insanely hard climb. Vino is now on 18% grade.

Kashechkin has attacked the Gomez trio and is in pursuit of his leader.

30 seconds between Valverde and Vino.

17:22 CEST   
And now the two Kazakhstanis are together. Here we go. Kash takes Vino's wheel for a while as the mist gets thicker.

Valverde has caught and passed Sastre, and the gap is 22 seconds...

17:23 CEST    151.1km/2km to go
Valverde accelerates again, dropping Anton and going off in pursuit of Gomez Marchante. Now Kashechkin is working for Vino, then Vino takes a turn.

17:24 CEST   
The road flattens a bit as Valverde is caught by Anton and Piepoli again. 22 seconds.

17:25 CEST    151.8km/1.3km to go
Vino and Kashechkin work together as they near 1 km to go. The Valverde group is doing its best to close the gap. It will be small, in any case. Vino checks back.

17:26 CEST   
Another nasty steep section, and the gap goes up to 29 seconds. Valverde is paying for his effort while Kashechkin's work is helping Vino a lot. Sastre is off the back, and it looks as though Gomez is actually behind the Valverde group. It's not easy to tell.

17:27 CEST    152.3km/0.8km to go
Sastre is 44 seconds behind the two leaders, who are at 1km to go and on a downhill. It's rocky and very misty here. Valverde is getting help from Anton, but is at 28 seconds.

17:27 CEST   
Vino hammers with his teammate Kashechkin, taking a sharp corner near the top. Vino will get the stage win for sure.

17:29 CEST    153.1km/0km to go
But no, it's Kashechkin who takes the win! Vino second, and they're both happy. Maybe the bonus seconds aren't that important.

Gomez Marchante is third at 29 seconds, then Valverde at 31, Piepoli and Anton at 35 seconds, then Sanchez, Danielson, Perez and Sastre.

17:30 CEST   
The two winners are delighted with their efforts as they hug each other after the line. Again, perfect teamwork. And Kashechkin may move up to the podium now. Valverde is a good 50 seconds down on Vino on GC.

17:35 CEST   
It's confirmed: Vinokourov now leads Valverde by 53 seconds, with Kashechkin in third at 2'06, then Sastre fourth at 2'51. Tomorrow's stage shouldn't change things, unless Valverde goes in pursuit of bonus seconds in a bunch sprint... We shall see you then!


1 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana Team                     3.57.39
2 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Team                         
3 José Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir      0.30
4 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears    0.32
5 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir                0.35
6 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi                             
7 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi                     0.46
8 Thomas Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team      
9 Luis Pérez (Spa) Cofidis, le Credit par Telephone              
10 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC                                  

General classification after stage 18

1 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana Team                 71.27.08
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears    0.53
3 Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana Team                        2.06
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC                               2.51
5 José Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir      
6 Thomas Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team  7.05
7 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi  

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