Contador keeps charge of oro
Belgium's Wouter Weylandt, 23, took up the sprint reins for Team Quick Step and conquered stage 17 of the Vuelta a España. Weylandt bettered Matti Breschel of Team CSC-Saxo Bank and Alexandre Usov of AG2R La Mondiale with a throw of his bike at the end of a 148.2-kilometre stage to Valladolid.
"It's amazing. It was not a good year for me. In 2007 I had seven wins, this year just seconds," said Weylandt. "This makes up for a lot."
Spain's Alberto Contador, 25, continues to lead the race. The Team Astana rider controls the maillot oro by 1:17 over teammate Levi Leipheimer and 3:41 over CSC-Saxo Bank's Carlos Sastre.
Quick Step back, but with a different name
The sprint looked destined to take place on a day that contained no categorised climbs. The peloton swept up escape duo, Spaniards Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank) and José Ruiz (Andalucía-Cajasur), with six kilometres left. Teams Euskaltel and Silence Lotto drove their capture for captains Koldo Fernández and Greg Van Avermaet, respectively.
Notably absent from the manoeuvres was Team Quick Step. The split in the main pack at 15 kilometres out could have hampered its organisation. In the second group was yesterday's winner, Quick Step's Tom Boonen, with sprinter Erik Zabel of Team Milram. The two groups came together with 10 kilometres remaining.
Caisse d'Epargne launched a move by Imanol Erviti in the final four kilometres. The action brought Liquigas to the front for Filippo Pozzato, who was second yesterday. A wave of Quick Step men on the right cleared a surge of Pozzato's green men. Instead of Boonen, who was driving at the back of the pack, it was Weylandt sitting in last wheel of the train.
Quick Step kept it going under the final kilometre banner despite a surge by Rabobank. Tosatto was on the front after the final corner a 90-degree left at 750 metres. The Italian pulled off early to force Usov into the wind and give the advantage to Weylandt.
Weylandt charged on the left of Usov and he kept Denmark's Breschel at bay on his other side. A bike throw topped his long charge to the line and he took his first win since March's win at Nokere-Koerse.
"I found out that I was going to be the main guy for the team today 20 kilometres from the finish," Weylandt added. "Yes, it made me nervous. You feel a bit stressed. I don't have many opportunities to sprint, so if there is one you want to win.
While waiting for a post-race interview with Belgian TV, Weylandt was the centre of attention for the fans. He also received the congratulations from none other than five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain.
"Boonen had already decided before [the break in the peloton] to not go for the sprint, that's why he was stuck behind. He took it easy because he is going home tonight to prepare himself for the Worlds."
Breschel was happy with his second spot. "Yes, it's a good result, but unfortunately it wasn't good enough. I was really hoping for today, as all the big sprinters aren't there anymore, so it was a big chance for me today," he said.
"It was not bad," Usov noted. "Lloyd Mondory launched the sprint perfectly for me. I hesitated a bit as I wasn't on his wheel, I was on the wheel of an Euskaltel rider. So I launched my sprint a second later than the others."
Spain's Koldo Fernández could not repay his Euskaltel-Euskadi teammates for their work. He muscled up between the bikes of Weylandt and Usov to take fourth. Germany's Heinrich Haussler of Team Gerolsteiner took fifth.
Boonen concluded his run in the Vuelta with two stage wins and leaves Spain to prepare for his second World Championships title. The blue points jersey will now rest on the shoulders of Van Avermaet, who finished sixth today.
"I am very happy to take the points jersey back and I will try to take it all the way to Madrid. He [Boonen - ed.] looked to be surprised by the wind, and it was also his last day," said Van Avermaet, 23.
"I wasn't too happy with the sprint. I should have followed [Leonardo] Duque's wheel. However, the team was working great. We were one of the first teams to pull, together with Euskaltel. I knew there was wind, so I was staying close to the front. We had Yaroslav Popovych pulling very hard."
A "flat" 148.2-kilometre stage from Zamora started under sunny and 20° Celsius temperatures. France's Sylvain Chavanel of Team Cofidis did not start. The once race leader left early to prepare for the World Championships.
Horrillo threw the hammer down at kilometre 12. Fellow Spaniard, Ruiz, chased him and the duo joined forces at kilometre 13.
Their gap climbed up to eight and a half minutes under the watch of Teams Euskaltel-Euskadi and Silence-Lotto. The peloton was a lot more active than 24 hours previously, with the pace some 10km/h faster. Ruiz winless in his career and Horrillo last win in 2006 were having a hard time getting much space.
The Euskaltel- and Astana-led chase had the duo within five minutes with 50 kilometres left to race. Silence-Lotto lent more of its muscle to the effort for sprinter Van Avermaet.
The gap to the duo was down to two minutes in the last 25 kilometres. Euskaltel kept the effort going for sprinter Fernández and Silence for Van Avermaet.
The pressure was on in the final 15 kilometres. The front duo held 42 seconds on the chase, which had split into two echeloned groups. The presence of Zabel and Boonen assured that the second group, led by Caisse d'Epargne, had some power in its chase.
Being caught in the second group was not Zabel's only problem. A flat rear tyre forced him to stop at seven kilometres, right before the escape duo ended their 130-kilometre run. Zabel re-joined the back of the main pack but was unable to contest the sprint.
The conclusion of the stage meant that Astana's Contador now only faces four stages before he can be crowned 2008 Vuelta a España champion. His lead in the overall classification looks untouchable, at least by any other. His nearest rival is America's Leipheimer, his own teammate.
Stage 18 - September 18: Valladolid - Las Rozas, 167.4km
Even though named lions's wall Puerto de los Leones - this category climb is rather easy. It will be the only categorizsed uphill of the day in an otherwise mostly downhill and flat stage towards Las Rozas. This town is already a stone's throw from Madrid, adding extra incentive to hang tough for a few more days for those who are on the verge of abandoning.
Laz Rozas will host the stage finish for the second time. Last year it was Pedro Díaz Lobato who won solo, so maybe the sprinters will be left out again? Las Rozas has one of the highest average per capita incomes in the Community of Madrid.