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Welcome to Cyclingnews' live coverage of the Vuelta a España's 17th stage from Talaverda de la Reina to Ávila. It's back into the hills for the peloton today.
A bit of a shock for the riders too, and quite apart from the return to altitude: It's cold today, 13 degrees C at the start and rain is falling.
Three categorised climbs rise on the course profile today. The first is Category 1, the Puerto de Mijares, a 20 kilometre climb that begins after 37 kilometres on the stage.
The Category 2 Alto Collado Mediano comes at 112.8 kilometres and then the final climb of the day, the Category 3 Alto del Baoqueron begins its rise at kilometre 139.
The peloton has remained pretty much intact today. There have been several attempts at an escape, notably Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) and Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) have taken off at seperate points, only to be brought back quickly
Some very sad news this morning, Canadian Christian Meier (Garmin-Slipstream) has withdrawn from the Vuelta following the death of his brother. It's tragic news and our thoughts go out to Christian and his family.
The peloton have now started the climb of the Puerto de Mijares. They remain together as no breakaway attempt has been able to gain much of a gap. Spanish teams Xacobeo Galicia, Euskaltel-Euskadi and Fuji-Servetto have all been very visible on the front of the peloton, shutting down escapes.
A hundred riders failed to sign in this morning so race organisers have had some trouble this morning working out who's still in the race and who may have left. It could have had a lot to do with riders wanting to avoid standing in the rain for too long before the days stage.
Although, we can confirm that Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil), Maxim Iglinskiy (Astana), stage-winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Slipstream) and Bert Grabsch (Columbia) have left the race.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis) has a small advantage over the peloton. Despite a huge lead in the mountains classification, the Frenchman has been relentless in his pursuit of points at all of the summits, particularly since his stage 13 win.
Here are the current standings in the mountains classification:
1 David Moncoutié (Fra) Cofidis 170 pts
2 David De La Fuente (Spa) Fuji-Servetto 89
3 Pieter Weening (Ned) Rabobank 60
4 Javier Ramírez (Spa) Andalucía-Cajasur 59
5 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 58
6 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 57
7 Julián Sánchez (Spa) Contentpolis-Ampo 57
8 Johnny Hoogerland (Ned) Vacansoleil 54
9 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 53
10 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 40
A group of nine have gone away on the climb, Moncoutie and Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank) and Jesus Del Nero Montes (Fuji-Servetto) have made their way across, we'll have those 12 names for you shortly...
The leaders have 25 seconds now over the peloton behind. The pace in the first hour of racing was 41km/h, it goes to show how tough it has been for those making breakaway attempts. There are some strong riders in this front group, so it'll be interesting to see how much room the peloton are willing to give them.
Some breaking news this morning was the suspension of Olaf Pollack and Markus Cronjäger by the German Cycling Federation. Both riders have tested positive for un-named substances. Pollack rode for Gerolsteiner and T-Mobile during his career. It was while racing for the latter that he wore the pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia in 2006.
Caisse d'Epargne have assumed control of the bunch now. They don't have a representative in the front group, so it's not too much of a surprise to see them working to bring it back together.
Caisse d'Epargne's anxiety will be coming from the fact that Euskaltel and Xacobeo both have riders in the lead 12. If Samuel Sánchez or Eziquiel Mosquera were to attack later on in the stage, their teammates in the break would be a big advantage.
This is what Caisse d'Epargne are protecting:
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 74:27:48
2 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 0:00:31
3 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 0:01:10
4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 0:01:28
5 Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto at 0:01:51
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 0:01:54
7 Joaquím Rodríguez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne at 0:05:53
8 Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Lampre-NGC at 0:06:34
9 Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin-Slipstream at 0:08:28
10 Juan José Cobo (Spa) Fuji-Servetto at 0:10:45
The attention of Valverde's squad shows the credence that they are giving to Sanchez and Mosquera. Valverde's closest rival Robert Gesink (Rabobank) is nursing some frustrating injuries at the moment, but he'll still be marked. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes caught up with Gesink yesterday.
Gilbert wants in! The Silence-Lotto rider has joined Mikael Cherel (Francaise des Jeux), Bingen Fernandez (Cofidis) and Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) in an attempt to bridge to the leaders, who have 34 seconds over the peloton.
Okay, the four have joined the 12, so we've not got a lead group of 16 riders. Apparently the peloton is satisfied with the composition of the group so they've let them got away to a two minute advantage. The leaders are now 2km from the summit of the Mijares.
The temperature at the top of the climb has dropped to 9 degrees C, this will be a big shock to the systems of the riders after a week of Spanish sunshine.
Anthony Roux's victory yesterday did see the sprinters miss out on maximum points. André Greipel (Columbia-HTC) finished the stage third behind Roux and William Bonnet (BBox Bouygues Telecom), but the big German won't be too fussed as he's resumed his commanding lead in the points competition after being docked 25 points last weekend:
1 André Greipel (Ger) Columbia-HTC 121 pts
2 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas 81
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 80
4 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 68
5 Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto 67
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 58
7 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas 56
8 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 55
9 Borut Bozic (Slo) Vacansoleil 52
10 Jürgen Roelandts (Bel) Silence-Lotto 52
Having said that André's not enjoying the final kilometres of the Mijares, he's trailing two minutes behind the group of the overall favorites on the peloton. He should get back on terms on the descent.
Greipel has just lost one sprint rival, Gerald Ciolek (Milram) has called it a day and abandoned.
The peloton is keeping tabs on the breakaway. The gap has dropped below two minutes once again as the peloton go over the summit.
No real surprise at the top of the climb, Moncoutié grabbed maximum points. Bit of bad luck for Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank) he punctured near the summit.
Result of at the top of the Category 1 Puerto de Mijares:
1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis)
2. Bingen Fernandez (Cofidis)
3. Jesus Del Nero Montes (Fuji-Servetto)
4. Manuel Vasquez (Contentpolis-Ampo)
5. Jesus Hernandez (Astana)
Fuglsang has made his way back into the breakaway. Things are looking good for Greipel too. He's in a group 1.20 behind the main peloton, but the Euskaltel-led main group appears to be waiting for the Greipel Group.
The race is well and truly off the descent of the Mijares.
The temperature dipped down to about 8 degrees C on the descent. Even though they've come off the moutnain the race will stay above 800m altitude so it'll probably remain chilly for the rest of the day.
Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux) has slipped just off the back of the breakaway to accept some mechanical assistance.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream) has retired from the Vuelta a España.
Danielson is scheduled to be racing the World Championships for the USA next week, it's a pretty miserable day and the kind of weather that could bring on illness so perhaps thoughts of Switzerland have been a factor in the decision to withdraw?
The peloton has reformed, the Greipel Group and the main pack coming back together. The breakaway has again increased their advantage to 4.00 as they make their way out of the feedzone.
The finish today is in Ávila, it is the capital of an eponymous Spanish province. Ávila (the province) is part of the the Castilla y León region - the largest of Spain's 17 autonomous communities.
Euskaltel continue to police the front of the peloton. They've definately taken their hand off the throttle as the leaders have pushed out to a more than five minute lead now.
Fuglsang has lead Taaramäe and Gilbert over the line at the first of two sprints on today's course. The sprint in El Barraco will be followed by one at El Herradon at 122km.
Results of first sprint at El Barraco (93km):
1. Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank)
2. Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis)
3. Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto)
Julien Loubet (AG2R La Mondiale) has also abandoned now. The race is moving quickly as it enjoys the assistance of a negative gradient.
Not surprisingly a lot of riders were preoccupied with the weather. Second placed overall Robert Gesink (Rabobank) wasn't super talkative when Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes caught up with him this morning, but he indicated that he was feeling okay considering the extent of his injuries suffered yesterday.
Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) has been having a fantastic Vuelta so far this year. The Dutchman is 12th overall at the moment. He'd have to be close to number one for nice guys in the peloton after he speaking with Cyclingnews this morning:
"I'm feeling pretty good, I'm not sure what's going to happen today. It's raining and it's expected too again tomorrow, so hopefully everyone can stay safe," he said. "I'd rather finish 12th overall than 9th with a bunch of guys crashing out."
No doubt Hoogerland spirits will have been boosted by news that his team's sponsor, Vacansoleil, will increase it's sponsorship in 2010.
Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) swaps bikes. He quickly assimilates once more with the breakaway, who lead by 4.15 over the peloton.
Irishman Philip Deignan is part of today's breakaway. The Cervélo rider is the highest placed member of the breakaway on the overall classification; 18th, 17:49 behind Valverde. Deignan had expected breaks to go, but told Cyclingnews that he didn't have any distinct plans to himself take part: "I'm feeling better, I've had a good rest [in the past few stages]. My main goal is to protect my top-20 position."
Caisse d'Epargne have assumed control of the peloton now. The lead 16 are closing on the start of the Alto Collado Mediano. The riders are rugged up but at least they're not copping the rain at the moment.
Valverde is close to the front of the peloton. Black and orange are the dominant colours on the front of the peloton as Caisse d'Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi watch out for the interests of their main men.
The breakaway are spreading their way up the climb of the Collado Mediano. Deignan takes the points at the summit. Matti Breschel was really battling with the 14% gradients towards the top.
The peloton are now hitting the steepest section of the Collado Mediano, just like the breakaway who passed here 3.30 ago, the peloton is spreading down the road.
Result of the second sprint at El Herradón, just before the start of the second climb.
1. Bingen Fernandez (Cofidis)
2. David Moncoutié (Cofidis)
3. Mikael Cherel (Française des Jeux)
The climb has seen the leader's advantage stretch back out to four minutes. Matti Breschel was battling towards the top of the climb, but he got back on the descent.
Cofidis are the best represented team in the break. Bingen Fernandez (Cofidis), Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis) or David Moncoutié (Cofidis) could all do something on the final climb of the day, which will start in 12km.
Euskaltel are stringing the peloton out on a long, straight section of road. The boys in orange are working hard, but the leaders have extended to almost 4.30
Just to let you know: I've switched to kilometres from the finish as we get close to 30 km-to-go.
Gesink and his Rabobank teammates are hovering around the middle of the peloton, he's not having the most comfortable of days at the Vuelta.
The breakaway and peloton are both on a descent, separated by 4.24. It's raining again now and the peloton is spreading out, giving one another plenty of room.
It's downhill all the way to the start of the final climb of the day, the Category 3 Alto del Boqueron. It could be the perfect launching pad for a rider like Gilbert. The break is definately going to be clear of the peloton when the climb starts.
Speaking of which, Gilbert (Silence-Lotto) has hit the climb and taken off straight away. He's got a gap on the break and Jakob Fuglsang is chasing.
Gilbert's got it in the "big-dog" (big chainring) and he's ticking away at a good rate as he pushes on. He's still pulling away from the peloton.
Fuglsang is about 15 seconds behind Fuglsang. David Herrero (Xacobeo Galicia) has just set off after Gilbert and Fuglsang.
Gilbert has approximately four kilometres to the top of the climb. If he makes it alone, he'll have a 17km time trial to the finish.
The breakaway is scattered down the road behind him.
Manuel Vasquez (Contentpolis-Ampo) and David Herrero (Xacobeo Galicia) have bridged quickly to Gilbert, it's now a trio out in front.
Fuglsang has now bridged and taken Vasquez and Herrero with him. Kreuziger (Liquigas) too has come across as Gilbert disappears backwards.
Deignan (Cervelo) has assumed control of the chase behind the four in front.
Caisse d'Epargne are in control of the peloton. The chase group have worked well and they've bridged to the leading quartet as they all go over the summit of the Alto del Boqueron. It's all back to status quo with 17km to go
Deignan is looking strong. He's been performing well this season. He's taken off in pursuit of Roman Kreuziger as the leaders descend.
Deignan won the Ronde d'Isard as an amateur, but then had some injuries and mononucleosis...this is his first season in a while where he's had no problem (apart from 5 crashes in the Giro)
Deignan and Kreuziger and Deignan are getting on with it on the descent. They're working well together and building a gap over the rest of the chasers. David Herrero (Xacobeo) and Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank) are doing the same about 10 seconds back.
Deignan and Kreuziger are almost off the descent, they've got 10km to go.
Fuglsang and Herrero were just five seconds behind the leaders with 10-to-go, but it looks as though they may have cooked themselves on the descent.
The peloton has crossed the summit of the final climb 8.40 behind the breakaway's passage beneath the same banner.
We've got a time check on Fuglsang and Herrero now, they're 15 seconds behind the leading duo.
Herrero was not looking great and Fuglsang has realised it's up to him to close the gap.
Deignan and Kreuiziger take their care through some still wet roundabouts on the outskirts of Avila.
It's not raining but the roads are wet in Avila. Kreuziger is a little frustrated by Deignan, the Czech rider is a superior bike handler in the corners.
Deignan is on the front now. Kreuziger looks back to see where Fuglsang is in relation.
The leaders are riding through the suburbs of Avila with 3-to-go. It looks as though Fuglsang will finish third.
The leading duo ride past the ancient city wall. Kreuziger comes through to lead Deignan, but he's still looking back, cautions of Fuglsang's strength.
Deignan and Kreuziger are now climbing the cobbled climb just before the finish, they'll have just several hundred metres once they come off this short sector.
Deignan is looking for Kreuziger to come through. The Liquigas rider wont move off the Irishman's wheel.
Kreuziger goes first, Deignan chases.
Deignan launches his sprint 150m out...and he gets it!
Fuglsang takes third, 15 seconds behind Deignan and Kreuiziger.
Deignan will also move up considerably in the overall classification too as a result of his win. The peloton has not reached the cobbles yet.
Brief stage result:
1 Philip Deignan (Irl) Cervélo TestTeam 4:19:14
2 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas 0:00:03
3 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Saxo Bank 0:00:16
4 Manuel Váquez (Spa) Contentpolis-Ampo 0:00:39
5 Igor Antón (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:00:41
6 Mickaël Chérel (Fra) Française des Jeux
7 Rein Taaramäe (Est) Cofidis
8 Rémy Di Gregorio (Fra) Française des Jeux
9 Jesús Hernández (Spa) Astana
10 Jesús Del Nero (Spa) Fuji-Servetto
11 Tadej Valjavec (Slo) AG2R La Mondiale 0:00:57
12 David Herrero (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 0:01:20
Deignan looks to have moved up to ninth overall, a great day out for the 26-year-old!
General classification after stage 18
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
2 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 0:00:32
3 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:01:10
4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas 0:01:28
5 Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto 0:01:51
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 0:01:54
7 Joaquím Rodríguez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0:05:53
8 Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Lampre-NGC 0:06:34
9 Philip Deignan (Irl) Cervélo TestTeam 0:07:49
10 Juan José Cobo (Spa) Fuji-Servetto 0:10:46
Thanks for joining us again today for Cyclingnews' live coverage of the Vuelta's stage 18. Tomorrow we're (and the peloton, of course!) headed on a 174 kilometre quest for Real Fabrica de Cristales. Four Category 1 climbs tomorrow so it's going to be yet another fantastic stage in Spain. See you then!