Double whammy from Astana

Valverde loses more time as Kashechkin wins

Twenty four hours after Alexandre Vinokourov made a some history when he took the first Grand Tour leader's jersey of his career, Kazakhstani compatriot and Astana team-mate Andrei Kashechkin also achieved a personal first for himself when he rode to victory on stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana.

The two riders reached the top of the hors categorie Sierra de la Pandera together, Vinokourov having attacked out of the group of favourites with just under 6 kilometres remaining to the mist-shrouded, wind-lashed summit. Valverde and third placed Carlos Sastre were amongst those who tried and failed to close, with Kashechkin the only one to successfully bridge, inside three kilometres to go. He took the stage win uncontested, while Vinokourov's time bonus plus his 32" margin over fourth placed Valverde at the finish [José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) was third] saw him move 53" clear in the general classification.

"We did not talk because we are friends and we understand how things are," said Kashechkin at the post race press conference, when asked if they discussed who would take the stage. "He would work for me and I would work for him in this race, depending on who needed it. We did not do the Tour de France, but we arrived here with good form and were very motivated to do well in the Vuelta.

"Today was also a very important day as we got a message to say that the president of the country would be watching the race on the television, so it was good to have a strong performance."

Had Vino taken the victory, he would have gained additional time over Valverde courtesy of the time bonus. However Kashechkin felt that this was not necessary. "As you could see on the final climb today the peloton was exposed. There were five people who could fight for the classification and I don't think the bonification is important as everyone was flat out and things split apart [in terms of time gaps].

"When I saw that Sastre was in trouble I knew it was the moment to go for it. I attacked then to get across [to Vinokourov]."

Kashechkin's strong ride means he moves to third overall, overtaking Carlos Sastre (CSC), who was tenth today and drops to fourth overall, 2'51 down. The Kazakhstani is 2'01 behind Vinokourov and 1'13 off the time of Valverde; he was asked if it was possible to take second place?

"I don't know the time gaps between him and me until I see the classification sheet but if the gap is more than a minute it will be difficult to get that back," he answered. "We will see tomorrow and in the time trial."

Vinokourov was delighted with the result, knowing that it means he is almost certain to win this Tour of Spain. He made his move after all of the riders from an early break had been recaptured, namely 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), plus a later move by mountains leader Egoi Martinez (Discovery Channel) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel).

"I waited for an attack by Valverde and was going to counterattack, but saw that he wasn't having a good day. So I attacked and quickly got a gap. I think that the race will only be over in Madrid but now I have more confidence in myself. I have a good gap and think I can take more [from him] in the time trial."

He was asked if missing the Tour de France was beneficial as it meant that he and the team were fresher than others. "Well, I would prefer to have won the Tour!" he answered. "But it is true that we are all fresh as we didn't race in July. I always try to win big races and if it happens that I win this Vuelta, it will be a good thing for me."

"The result is also important back home... there is a good reaction and it is good publicity there for us and our sport. It is a very big race and if we win, it will be a big thing for our sponsors."

Former race leader Valverde started the day just nine seconds behind Vinokourov but his slightly weaker time trialling meant that realistically, he had to take time back on his rival. However he was unable to do so and now looks destined for second place in Madrid.

"It should be acknowledged that Vinokourov is really very strong," he said after the finish. "The Kazakhs showed once again that they are very solid, even if I believe that Vinokourov was very lucky that Kashechkin came to help him in the last part of the ascension, because after having attacked very hard, I think that he started to get really tired.

"As for me, I did my best to fight and I think that it is the most important thing. My team-mates, once again, did exceptional work throughout the stage. And it is for them, for the great Vuelta which they have ridden, that I am sad not to head down from the Pandera with the yellow jersey on my shoulders. Things are very difficult for us now, but the Vuelta is not ended yet and we will fight until the last day."

He seemed slightly more resigned when talking to Spanish television. "I fought hard. I am not disillusioned... if someone is stronger than you, then you have to accept it. We all rode well, the team were good and I can be happy with a place on the podium. I will think of the future."

Team-mate Joaquin Rodriguez said they tried to regain the maillot oro. "The two riders from Kazakhstan were very strong. We did the best we could in order to defeat Vinokourov, we played out our strategy. It was Valverde or Vinokourov, and in the end it was Vinokourov."

Saunier Duval rider Jose Gomez Marchante was third on the stage, precisely half a minute behind the leading duo. He had poor fortune and could otherwise have fared better. "I had bad luck, having a puncture in my front wheel at the bottom of the category 2 climb [Alto de los Villares]. I stopped then. My team waited for me but soon after I had more bad luck, flatting my rear wheel.

"It is noticeable that every day Vinokourov is getting better."

Yesterday's stage winner Tom Danielson was one of many tired, cold riders at the summit, but he was also in high spirits. "That was a super climb," he said, as he looked for extra clothing from his Discovery Channel team soigneur prior to riding back down the mountain to the team bus. "It reminds me of Brasstown Bald, it is pretty similar to it.

"I was dropped in the beginning because I was tired from yesterday... I rode my ass off all day yesterday. Obviously if I hadn't done yesterday I could have done better today. [he was 8th, 46 seconds back]. The weather was hard... I was cold and tired coming up. I am happy to be done with the mountains."

The American said that the response to his stage win has been positive. "I got a nice reaction from the people back home, and especially the spectators in Spain," he said. "I can't be any happier about yesterday, it is a dream come true. Now I feel confident I can do the classification for real in the future."

Final word to today's winner, Kashechkin. Did he think the Vuelta was now over? "We will do all we can to control the race and ensure that he [Vinokourov] arrives in Madrid, after the time trial, in the first place. It is not over for sure - a crash or something like that could cause problems, so until we cross the final finish line it is not won. But things are good."

How it unfolded

La Pandera is a mountain first climbed in 2002, when Roberto Heras prevailed over Gilberto Simoni and Oscar Sevilla over the same route as today's. Alejandro Valverde also won here in 2003 after a phenomenal performance, beating great climbers like Heras and Colombia's Felix Cardenas. That was the second Grand Tour stage win for Valverde in his sporting career and indeed a nice memory.

The race lost two great riders who didn't take the start today: Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas). Both were protagonists in this Vuelta, winning one stage apiece (Bettini won stage 2 and Di Luca stage 5), but they decided to stop their ride to Madrid.

An early breakaway was formed at km 8 with seven riders: Nicki Sorensen (CSC), Benoit Poilvet (Credit Agricole), Raul Garcia de Mateo (Relax), Markel Irizar (Euskaltel), Pedro Horrillo (Rabobank), Pierre Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom) and Olivier Kaisen (Davitamon).

The leaders were able to keep their distance, and at the first intermediate sprint in Huelma (km 68.5), Poilvet led the race followed by Kaisen and Garcia de Mateo. At km 89, the gap between the breakaway and the bunch was 4'05. With the two big climbs in Villares and La Pandera at the end, the race went on and the peloton stayed calm.

The lead group continued to resist the chase by the second intermediate sprint (km 129) in los Villares, although their advantage began to drop. As the peloton started swallowing the members of the breakaway with less than 20 km to go, Nicki Sorensen kept his tempo and was soon alone, with the bunch a little more than a minute ahead.

However, with 14 km to go, the Dane was caught by Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and Egoi Martinez (Discovery). The best riders weren't far behind when this duo attacked - 40 seconds was the difference at the summit of the penultimate climb at km 140.4, with 13 km left to race.

The favourites drove hard and soon caught Mayo, while Martinez became the solo leader with 7 km to go. Luis Perez (Cofidis) joined Martinez soon afterwards, and a little later on La Pandera with 6 km to go, Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) found the precise moment to attack. Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) felt the blow and couldn't follow, as Vino then led the race and distanced himself from Valverde by 45 seconds four kilometres from the finish.

At this point, Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) wasn't too far behind his team leader, and the young Kazakhstani joined Vino with 3 km to go. Both riders helped each other and finished off a magnificent day for Astana by crossing the line together, with Vinokourov giving the win to Kashechkin.

Valverde never gave up but couldn't match the might of the Kazakhstani duo, losing 43 precious seconds by the finish, just behind third-placed Jose Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval). On the podium, it became clear Vinokourov was already thinking of kissing the winner's trophy in Madrid.

Stage 19 - September 15: Jaen-Ciudad Real, 205.3 km

Tomorrow's stage is littered with small climbs along its undulating parcours. Three categorised climbs - Alto del Parque Natural de Andujar (Cat. 2 - 750 m. above sea level - km 75), Alto de Sierra Madrona (Cat. 3 - 960 m. - km 102.6) and Alto del Tamaral (Cat. 3 - 800 m. - km 117) - and two intermediate sprints - in Las Viñas de Peñallana (km 50) and Puertollano (km 161.2) - are the feature attractions along the 205.3 km route.

A very long stage for all the riders, although the favourites will be focused on having a quiet day in the office before the final time trial on Saturday. This leaves the chance for a breakaway to be in the spotlight.

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