Stage 18: Valladolid - Salamanca
Highest point: 900m
Category: Road stage
At last, a stage that the sprinters – if there are any left – can mark down as one for them. This is about as flat as stages come on Spain's central plateau. Connecting Valladolid, a start town for the 34th time, and Salamanca, which hosts its 21st finish, the stage also pays tribute to the race's 75th anniversary. The link is that the first Vuelta started with a stage between Madrid and Valladolid, which was won by Belgium's Antoine Digneff. As with the time trial, the wind could be tricky here. Its effect can be brutal on these wide-open plains.
Following the tragic death of Franco Ballerini earlier this year, Paolo Bettini will be directing the Italian team at the Worlds for the first time. Twice a winner of the World title himself, Bettini has already made it clear that he'll be looking at Alessandro Petacchi and Daniele Bennati as the most likely leaders on a course that should suit the sprinters. Already a winner of 19 stages at the Vuelta, Petacchi will want to prove he has the edge over Liquigas sprinter Bennati. But Bennati has taken four Vuelta stage wins of his own and has been in decent form this season. The match-up will be fascinating.
Flashback Cipo's bad day
Both Valladolid and Salamanca feature regularly on the Vuelta's itinerary. The latter's most memorable recent stage finish was in 1994, when Italian sprinter Adriano Baffi was adjudged to have forced his Mercatone Uno team-mate Mario Cipollini into the barriers. As Baffi rode on to take the stage, the helmetless ‘Cipo' crunched head first into the road. He was badly hurt and took months to recover.
Baffi was stripped of the victory, although he insisted: "I didn't touch him at all." No one could say why the two teammates had been duelling for the victory in the first place, although Baffi did venture that, "In almost all the Dutch and Belgian teams there are two or three sprinters and it's not a problem." He added, "I didn't know who was coming up behind me, and had I known it was Cipollini I might have let him pass. Or perhaps not…"
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