Imanol Erviti of Caisse d'Epargne made his first professional victory a big one in Las Rozas, crossing the finish line only centimetres ahead of Credit Agricole's Nicolas Roche in the 18th stage of the Vuelta. The two were part of a successful breakaway group, which had gotten away early and held a lead of up to eight minutes. There was no change in the top of the overall rankings.
David Herrero of Xacobeo was the first to successfully get away from the break with about five kilometres to go. He was joined by Erviti, Roche and Vasiliy Kiryenka of Tinkoff, who were able to build up enough of a lead to sprint for the win among themselves. Herrero finished third on the day, one second down.
"I didn't raise my hands [over the line] because it was just too close," the previously little-known Erviti said. "I was afraid of letting this opportunity slip away. We were fighting hard for the sprint. This is my first victory as a pro and straight at the Vuelta. It is grandissimo." The finish was indeed very close, at first looking like a photo finish.
The 24 year-old credited his teammate in the break group, who helped him a lot. "The key to my success today was Vicente Garcia Acosta. He has a lot of experience." Garcia Acosta was also very active in the finale, making numerous break attempts.
Roche, also 24, opened the sprint, but too soon, as he admitted. "I went too early... because he overtook me. Then I sprinted again to try to get back to him. But he was very strong and a good winner."
Third-placed Herrero looked like he would have a good chance to take the win, but was caught by his followers with about two kilometres to go, when he went one way around a traffic circle and they went the other way. "There were others that took the initiative. I countered, but in the end I couldn't win. The others were stronger," he noted.
Silence-Lotto's Greg van Avermaet made a point of being in the day's escape group, and diligently gathered points at the two intermediate sprints. He took in 18 points on the day, giving him a 20 point lead in the point ranking over race leader Alberto Contador (Astana). "I am very happy I made it into the break," the Belgian noted. "For the jersey it was very important but winning was not possible. I am tired now.... I just have to take a few points in Madrid and hope that Contador has bad legs on Saturday," he added with a laugh.
The race got off to a fast start, covering 49 km in the first hour. The speed and wind were enough to keep everyone together, despite numerous escape attempts.
Finally a large group formed and got away at about 50 km. Karsten Kroon and Iñigo Cuesta (CSC), Renaud Dion (AG2R), Jose Ruiz Sanchez (Andalucia), Imanol Erviti and José Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Cyril Lemoine and Nicolas Roche (Crédit Agricole), Alan Perez and Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel), Jelle Vanendert (FDJ), David Herrero (Xacobeo), Enrico Franzoi (Liquigas), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Greg van Avermaet (Silence), Andriy Grivko (Milram) and Vasili Kiryienka (Tinkoff) were the group of the day, and built up a lead of over eight minutes.
For most of the day, the peloton was happy to let them go, and Astana quietly controlled things at the front of the following field. But as the gap increased, Gerolsteiner got nervous for Oliver Zaugg, in tenth place overall, who was being threatened by Roche.
Gerolsteiner and Cofidis moved to take over the lead work, and in the end, the field crossed the finish line 7.29 behind Erviti. That was enough to keep Zaugg in 10th while moving Roche up from 17th to 13th.
The large escape group worked well together, but with about 30 km to go, they realized they would not be caught and tried to figure out how to outfox each other and take the win. There were innumerable escape attempts, with Garcia Acosta, Flecha and the two Euskaltel riders being the most active.
Herrero took off with four kilometres to go, and Erviti, Roche and Kiryienka caught him at the two kilometre marker. They stayed together as they went up the slight incline to the finish. Kiryienka was the first to drop off. Roche opened the sprint too early and Erviti passed him to take the win by a hair.
Seven and a half minutes later, Gerolsteiener's Heinrich Haussler and Sebastian Lang led the peloton in.