Luis Pérez Rodriguez signs off in style

General classification rearranged in aggressive day

Luis Pérez Rodriguez has signed off on 13 years as a professional cyclist in style. The 33 year-old Spaniard of Andalucía-Cajasur, who will retire on Sunday, won the 18th stage of the Vuelta a España to Ávila. Pérez Rodriguez powered clear of an escape group of race overall favourites at 10 kilometres to go.

"I am now one of the happiest people in the world," declared the winner. "I want to dedicate the win to my team Andalucía-Cajasur - from the riders to the whole outfit because it was the only team that had faith in me and cared about having me on its roster."

Pérez Rodriguez, who just recently announced that his retirement will come with the end of the Vuelta, joined a huge escape group at kilometre 17. He kept his cool over the Porte de Mijares and Porte de Navalmoral as the classification men fought out for seconds. The winner of the overall in this years Clasica de Alcobendas and a stage in the 2003 Vuelta timed his move perfectly by launching on the stiff slopes leading to the walled city of Ávila.

"I had already thought about it," he said of his surprise attack on the penultimate finishing lap. "Because [the rest of the group] would have waited to attack on the last climb [the second finishing circuit]. I caught them by surprise. I expected that the favourites' group would watch each other and that I could reach the finish."

The cobbled roads and ancient city proved to be a classy back drop to a rider on his swan song. Pérez Rodriguez held clear for the closing circuit, which included one more rise up the cobbled streets to Ávila and passing the gruppetto. Cheers from the chase group spurred Pérez Rodriguez to the win.

He crossed the line, pumped his right fist, gave the 2007 Vuelta its first win by a Pro Continental team and likely took his last professional victory. Over thirty seconds later, Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) led Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and race leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank) over the line.

"I knew this stage would be complicated especially in tactical terms," said Menchov. "There was a very hard first climb. We had to race very intelligently."

Curly haired Pellizotti was the surprise of the day. He seemed to have saved his strength while the others worked but could not mount a charge on the move of Pérez Rodriguez, and missed out on the win. In fact, the whole group seemed content to allow Pérez Rodriguez's gap build.

Sastre showed some unusual aggression. He and his team played a beautiful card by having its men in the early move to aid their leader when he bridged. Sastre attacked the Menchov group five kilometres before the summit of Porte de Mijares. The Spaniard move was immediately marked by Menchov and Evans, and sent Beltrán and Efimkin scrabbling.

CSC used Chris Anker Sørensen, Christian Vande Velde and then Volodimir Gustov to distance Sastre's rivals. It worked. With the help of Igor Antón for Euskaltel-Euskadi team-mate Samuel Sánchez, the group quickly distanced the chase group. The end result was that Sastre moved up to third overall, behind jersey oro Menchov and Evans, and 'Samu' Sánchez moved from fifth to fourth. Russian Efimkin held on to second overall going into the day, but slipped down three positions on the overall. Spaniard Beltrán moved down one spot, to eighth.

Menchov himself was impressed with CSC's tactics, reinforcing his belief that Sastre is the biggest threat to his race lead. "They [the journalists] always ask me who is the most dangerous rider and I've said the most dangerous is Carlos Sastre. CSC as team did a great job today."

How it unfolded

Ávila is a city that has preserved its famous ancient wall. The wall was built in the XI century and is 2.516 metres long surrounding the old town. It protected the ancient city inhabitants from foreign attacks.

The city has hosted the Vuelta 21 times. It is a must in the Vuelta's third week before arriving to the nearby capital city of Madrid. The tour didn't finish here last year, but it did in 2005 when Denmark's Nicki Sørensen won.

There were four abandons before the stage started in Talavera de la Reina: World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step - Innergetic), Laszlo Bodrogi (Crédit Agricole), Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) and Allan Davis (Discovery Channel). The riders left in the race numbered 148.

Many riders wanted to do something in the stage. There were 24 riders, including Jurgen Van Goolen (Discovery Channel), Jason McCartney (Discovery Channel), Sylvan Chavanel (Cofidis), José Luis Arrieta (Ag2r Prévoyance) and Christian Vande Velde (CSC) who attacked. The escapees couldn't get a good gap, and they were all caught at kilometre 40.

Soon after, another group took the lead: Hubert Dupont (Ag2r Prévoyance), Stéphane Goubert (Ag2r Prévoyance), Luis Pérez Rodriguez (Andalucía-Cajasur), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), David López García (Caisse d'Epargne), Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Van Goolen (Discovery Channel), Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Iñaki Flores (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Santos Gonzalez (Karpin Galicia), David Loosli (Lampre-Fondital), Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre-Fondital), Ángel Vallejo (Relax-GAM), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Volodimir Gustov (CSC), Chris Anker Sørensen (Team CSC) and Christian Vande Velde (Team CSC).

Behind the leading group, Sastre attacked Menchov with the help of his team-mate Iñigo Cuesta. The Russian resisted, and got behind Sastre's wheel while Vladimir Efimkin couldn't keep the pace.

The chasing group mixed with some of the original leaders to form a new 12-man leading group at kilometre 56: Sastre, Menchov, Gustov, Karpets, Monfort, Anton, Pellizotti, Goubert, Luis Pérez Rodriguez, Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), Samuel Sánchez and Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin Galicia).

Anker Sørensen and Vande Velde joined the leaders while Goubert fell from this group. Following the 13-man group was the chasing group of Efimkin, Zandio, Vallejo, Chavanel, Loosli, Van Goolen, David López García, Manuel Beltrán (Liquigas), Daniel Moreno (Relax-GAM) and José Vicente Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne) that was 38 seconds behind at kilometre 76.

Stéphane Goubert and his Ag2r team-mate Dupont were able to join the front riders, while the chasing group was caught by the peloton at kilometre 93. The leaders were 2'45" ahead of the big group at that point.

On the last climb of the day in Navalmoral, the escapes climbed very well and maintained the advantage. They led by 2'53" at kilometre 119 (34.5 kilometres to go). They arrived at the outskirts of Ávila (14.5 kilometres to go) 2'50" in the lead.

On rider dared to make the first attack, and he prevailed. Luis Pérez Rodriguez chose the first go on the uphill pavé with 13 kilometres to go. Three kilometres on, the Spaniard led by 26 seconds over the chasers.

Pérez Rodriguez increased and maintained the advantage: 33 seconds ahead with nine kilometres to go, 35 with eight, 42 with six, 38 with five, 38 with four, 43 with three and 48 with two. Samuel Sánchez wanted to catch but couldn't find the way, not even on the second charge up the pavé. Finally, Pérez Rodriguez crossed the finish line solo, 40 seconds ahead of his chasers. The Efimkin group arrived 3'06" slower.

Stage 19 - September 21: Ávila - Alto de Abantos, 133km

The third-to-last stage of the Vuelta will sort out the GC and see a rider rise to defend his golden top or a new champion snatch the threads with the hope of running clear to Madrid. The stage is only 133 kilometres but it is packed with five classified climbs before the final mountain top arrival on the Alto de Abantos.

Nervous eyes will be forced to watch every move that goes in the early portion of the day. Valdelavía and Hoyo de la Guija will be faced before the cyclists reach the two closing circuits that include climbs Alto de Robledondo and Alto de Abantos. The second round ends at the summit of Alto de Abantos; the climb averages 5.7% gradient and with section of 19%.

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