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Vuelta a España 2014: Stage 18

Live coverage of stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, 157 kilometres from A Estrada to Monte Castrove.

There is just one climb on the agenda this afternoon, but the peloton will tackle it twice. They first reach the summit of the category 2 Alto Monte Castrove (7km at 7%) with 24 kilometres remaining, then loop around and climb it again. The finish line comes 700 downhill metres after the top of the climb.

There were three non-starters today. Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen have both left the Vuelta to fine-tune their preparations for the world championships in Ponferrada, while

, who underwent surgery this week.

Gesink was lying seventh overall so his withdrawal means that Dani Navarro moves into the top ten. The provisional general classification is as follows:

1 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo 67:51:07
2 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) Movistar Team 0:01:36
3 Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky 0:01:39
4 Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) Team Katusha 0:02:29
5 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team 0:03:38
6 Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin Sharp 0:06:17
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC Racing Team 0:06:55
8 Warren Barguil (Fra) Team Giant-Shimano 0:08:37
9 Damiano Caruso (Ita) Cannondale 0:09:10
10 Daniel Navarro Garcia (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions Credits 0:09:24
 

137km remaining from 157km

As we pick up the action after 20 kilometres of racing, the peloton is still together and the average speed so far has been a blistering 52.2kph.

The peloton's intact state should not be mistaken for a lack of activity, of course. Jesse Sergeant (Trek) led a group of nine riders clear inside the opening kilometres but a determined pursuit from Lotto-Belisol pegged them back and drove the speed up accordingly.

News is reaching us of a fourth non-starter on today's stage, incidentally. Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge) has also withdrawn from the Vuelta. There are 165 riders left in the race for the final four days on the camino to Santiago.

127km remaining from 157km

Make that 164 riders. Koen de Kort (Giant-Shimano) has wheeled to a halt at the road side and brought the curtain down on his Vuelta. The day's early break, meanwhile, has yet to form, and the peloton is rattling along at a brisk 47kph.

121km remaining from 157km

Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr) has managed to break free of the peloton, but the Breton has a lead of just 14 seconds and will certainly be hoping to attract some reinforcements. 

Movistar, however, seem in no mood to allow a break go clear, at least without a representative. They have pegged back Le Bon and the (searingly fast) stalemate continues.

115km remaining from 157km

Not to be deterred, Johan Le Bon has another go, and this time he's brought a decent group with him. There are ten riders out in front, including Philippe Gilbert (BMC), and they have 20 seconds in hand on the peloton.

Crucially, Movistar's Jonathan Castroviejo is in the group on policing duty, as are Katusha's Alberto Losada and Eduard Vorganov, and Sky's Kanstantin Siutsou. Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and Chris Froome are all represented, then, so it seems up to the Tinkoff-Saxo squad of Alberto Contador to decide how to play this.

110km remaining from 157km

The ten men in front are: Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr), Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge), Guillaume Levarlet (Cofidis), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky), Romain Hardy (Cofidis), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural), Jacques Van Rensburg (MTN-Qhubeka), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar).

 

106km remaining from 157km

They're not being given very much breathing space, however. At one point, their lead stood at 22 seconds, but the combined chasing of Garmin-Sharp and Lampre-Merida has brought that gap back down to just 9 seconds.

A remarkable 50.5 kilometres have been covered in the first hour of racing in the third week of the third grand tour of the season.

102km remaining from 157km

Gruppo compatto once again. The Le Bon-Gilbert move has been shut down after 55 kilometres of racing.

Garmin-Sharp's desire to shut down the break suggests that today's finale might be one for Dan Martin. On paper, the Irishman said at the start, the finish at Monte Castrove suits him, but in practice it might prove difficult to slip away. "Two factors can’t be forgotten: at the end of a Grand Tour, feelings change from one day to another. Yesterday, I wasn’t feeling well, I hope I’ll better today but if not, I don’t think I’ll be able to go for the stage win," he said. "Secondly, my status doesn’t allow me to break away so I have to fight against the likes of Valverde and Purito who need to gain time on GC. It’s been a difficult year for me, also during the Vuelta. I’ve had bad luck, being beaten by Matthews on stage 3 and crashing on the way to Lagos de Covadonga. But that’s cycling.”

95km remaining from 157km

The irrepressible Le Bon has yet another go. Will it be third time lucky for the former junior world champion? This time he's brought Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural) and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) with him, and this trio has built up a lead of 40 seconds over the peloton.

Finally - and mercifully - the pace in the main field has slackened and the break has been given its head. Le Bon, Sanchez and Dupont have a lead of 2:20 over the peloton. The échapée matinale has been established... at 3.10pm local time.

Still only 24 years of age, Le Bon is part of an emerging bloc of young classics riders at FDJ.fr. He was hugely impressive - and aggressive - at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this spring. Le Bon, incidentally, rented a house in Belgium through the early months of the year in order to familiarise himself with the cobbles and backroads of Flanders.

Hubert Dupont made a dramatic impact at the 2011 Giro d'Italia, riding strongly in support of John Gadret and helping himself to 11th overall in the process. He was back to finish 16th overall in this year's race and was already on the offensive at this Vuelta on he road to Alcaudete in week one.

Alejandro Valverde's Movistar guard continue to keep tabs on affairs at the head of the peloton. They seem reluctant to allow the break's lead to touch the four-minute mark, and they clearly feel that Valverde has a chance to pick up bonus seconds and gain some time on Chris Froome this afternoon.

Cadel Evans has yet to sign a contract for next season and there have been persistent murmurs that he may even be contemplating retirement. At the start this morning, the Australian said that he would make an announcement on his future prior to the world championships in Ponferrada. "My performance has been way below what I wanted but that’s a little bit related to a lot going on in my life and I haven’t been as concentrated as I’d have liked to have been, but anyway it’s coming better now. A bit late, but better late than never,” Evans said of his showing at this Vuelta, where he has been riding in support of Samuel Sanchez.

 

79km remaining from 157km

Movistar continue to patrol the head of the peloton, and their work has brought the break's lead back to two minutes.

Speaking at the start in A Estrada, Chris Froome said that he expected an onslaught from Valverde in the finale this afternoon and conceded that Alberto Contador's hold on the red jersey is most likely to be an enduring one. "On GC, it’ll be very hard to catch Alberto Contador. I expect a bigger fight for second and third places," he said. "Given that it’s not a real mountain at the end, I expect Valverde to try and extend his lead. I don’t know if my increase of form allows me to beat him today. In these circumstances, everyone has good days and bad days.”

 

Movistar were not exactly the most popular visitors to A Estrada, site of today’s start. The Galician town is the home to 2013 Tour of Portugal winner Alejandro Marque, whose planned move to Movistar fell apart when he tested positive for betamethasone. Although the 32-year-old was ultimately not sanctioned, Movistar opted not to sign him, to the ire of his hometown fans.

A delegation of protestors in yellow t-shirts gathered outside the team bus in A Estrada this morning chanting “Vodafone! Vodafone!” and decrying the actions of what they called the “Mafiastar” team. A pair of policemen were assigned to keep an eye on proceedings outside the Movistar bus and the protest passed off without further incident.
 

Local protests are nothing new at the Vuelta, of course. When the 1995 race visited Aragon, for instance, Mapei incurred the wrath of local fan's upset at Fernando Escartin's omission from their line-up. The climber agreed a deal with Kelme for 1996 in the days leading up to the Vuelta, and was unceremoniously dumped from the team.

63km remaining from 157km

Apparently unflustered by the Peña Alex Marque's profession of love for a rival telecommunications company, Movistar continue to set the tempo at the head of the peloton and are keeping the trio's lead at the two-minute mark.

 

Incidentally, we evoked Fernando Escartin's exclusion from the 1995 Vuelta as a contrast to Nacer Bouhanni's inclusion in FDJ's roster this time around in spite of his switch to Cofidis at the end of the season. FDJ manager Marc Madiot has had a change of heart on Bouhanni's status, however, since reading an interview the Frenchman gave to L'Equipe at the weekend. This morning it emerged that Bouhanni will not race for FDJ again (he abandoned the Vuelta on Saturday) and will have to prepare for the Worlds by training at home instead of riding the Tour du Doubs.

52km remaining from 157km

After that rapid start to proceedings, the pace is a little more relaxed in the peloton for now, but the speed will begin to pick up once again on the road to Pontevedra, and the first ascent of the Monte Castrove shortly afterwards. The break's lead stands at 1:52.

Luis Leon Sanchez holds a 23-point lead in the king of the mountains competition and can buttress that lead still further if this break stays clear for another 20 kilometres or so. For now, their lead is 2:11.

Luis Leon Sanchez landed at Caja Rural in the winter after Belkin took the step of buying him out of his contract and dispensing with his services due his links to doping investigations in Spain. Next year he will return to the WorldTour with Astana, who yesterday fired Valentin Iglinskiy after he tested positive for EPO at the Eneco Tour.

43km remaining from 157km

Adriano Malori leads the Movistar delegation at the head of the peloton, but a line of Sky riders is moving up on the right hand side of the road. The battle for positions ahead of the finishing circuit is beginning in earnest.

Astana and Katusha are also well-represented up there. There is no sign of Alberto Contador for now, though one imagines his Tinkoff-Saxo squad will force its way towards the front in the coming kilometres.

40km remaining from 157km

There has been a fresh injection of urgency to the peloton, which is strung out in a long way as it snakes through Pontevedra, ten kilometres from the foot of the first ascent of Montecastrove.

37km remaining from 157km

The peloton rattles over the Lerez River as it crosses the spectacular Ponte dos Tirantes. The break's lead is down to 1:15.

BMC's Philippe Gilbert was circumspect about his prospects of victory this afternoon. The Belgian has underscored his pre-Worlds form with stage wins in each of his past three Vueltas, in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but he has yet to sparkle at this year's race. "A 7km climb with the top climbers might be a bit long for me," he said at the start.

"I don’t know if this finale is made for Philippe Gilbert. It might be a bit hard," BMC directeur sportif Valerio Piva said. "The best stages for him were in the first week when he wasn’t in his best shape. Yesterday he wanted to try something but Rohan Dennis was at the front. Today, he could go in a break but when a stage suits Philippe, it suits Purito as well and Katusha rides.”

33km remaining from 157km

Alberto Contador has eased his way to the head of the peloton, just a few kilometres from the foot of the climb. The break's lead has dropped to 42 seconds.

32km remaining from 157km

Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) senses a lull in the peloton, and he jumps away ahead of the first ascent of the Alto Montecastrove.

30km remaining from 157km

Le Bon, Sanchez and Dupont hit the foot of the climb with a 30-second advantage. Hansen, meanwhile, is swept up by the bunch.

Tinkoff-Saxo take up the pace-making in the peloton at the base of the climb, and their efforts have pegged the break's lead back to 15 seconds. Luis Leon Sanchez climbs out of the saddle in a bid to breathe some life into the escapees' efforts.

29km remaining from 157km

Tinkoff-Saxo have an ally of circumstance in Sky, who are also keen to keep a brisk tempo at the head of the peloton. Froome and Contador are well-placed towards the front.

29km remaining from 157km

Guillaume Levarlet (Cofidis) punches his way out of the pack and opens a small gap. Alberto Losada (Katusha) comes with him. They're almost within sight of the escapees.

Kanstantin Siutsou and Philip Deignan are setting the tempo for Sky at the head of the bunch, and they are unconcerned by Losada and Levarlet's move.

27km remaining from 157km

Chris Froome sits in third wheel in the peloton, with the red jersey Alberto Contador maintaining a watching brief not far behind.

27km remaining from 157km

Luis Leon Sanchez has led all he way up this climb, but Dupont and Le Bon are sticking closely to his wheel. Alberto Losada is chasing a lone around ten seconds behind, with the peloton a further 17 seconds back.

26km remaining from 157km

Luis Leon Sanchez's forcing begins to tell. Johan Le Bon is dropped and the Spaniard is inching away from Hubert Dupont.

25km remaining from 157km

Luis Leon Sanchez's gap over the peloton is back up to 35 seconds over the bunch, which is still being led by Siutsou, who is followed by Deignan and Froome. The other overall contenders are lined up behind that Sky delegation.

As expected, the selection in the main field has come from behind on the Alto Monte Castrove. Sky's forcing is whittling down the size of the peloton. Luis Leon Sanchez, meanwhile, retains a lead of 27 seconds as he approaches the summit.

24km remaining from 157km

Luis Leon Sanchez reaches the summit of the climb. He is now a fast 700 metres away from the first passgge through the finish line.

23km remaining from 157km

Sanchez goes through the finish line with 11 seconds in hand on Losada and Dupont, while the Sky-led peloton is just 18 seconds behind. The fast 14km descent to follow should bring the race back together ahead of the final climb.

Losada and Dupont catch and pass Luis Leon Sanchez at the top of the descent. Sanchez takes a baleful look at the pair and sits up to wait for the peloton.

20km remaining from 157km

Moments later, Dupont and Losada are also swept up by the bunch. The field is back together once again.

18km remaining from 157km

Dario Cataldo takes over the pace-making at the head of the peloton for Team Sky. The climb of Monte Castrove didn't appear tough enough on first glance to provoke a major separation of the general classification contenders, but time is running out for Froome et al if they are to deny Contador an improbable victory.

16km remaining from 157km

Barely two weeks before the Vuelta, Contador apparently had "no possibility" of starting the race after fracturing his tibia at the Tour de France. Three days from Santiago, he is on the brink of final overall victory.

14km remaining from 157km

There are 50 or so riders in the main peloton as it reaches the bottom of the descent. After a brief flat and a sprint at San Xoan de Poio, they turn back onto the climb with 7 kilometres to race.

12km remaining from 157km

There are bonus seconds up for grabs at this intermediate sprint, of course, and it would be a surprise if Alejandro Valverde didn't try to snaffle a few more away from Froome here.

10km remaining from 157km

Sky continue to set a fierce tempo in this whittled down leading group on the final approach to the climb. Ryder Hesjedal moves up along the side of the group in a bit to move his Garmin teammate Dan Martin up into position.

8km remaining from 157km

Chris Froome sprints for the bonus seconds. There seemed a little confusion over the sprint banner (shades of 2011), but it seems Froome has picked up two seconds for his troubles. Movistar had riders in front of him and behind, but Valverde was conspicuous by his absence in that dust-up.

8km remaining from 157km

Froome is now provisionally just one second off Valverde on GC and 1:37 down on Contador.

As the climb starts, Christophe Le Mevel (Cofidis) jumps clear and Sergio Paulinho (Tinkoff-Saxo) is immediately across.

6km remaining from 157km

Le Mevel leads a section of 12% gradient as Alessandro De Marchi and Paolo Tiralongo give chase. A delegation from Katusha chases in support of Rodriguez, but Contador and Froome are with the Catalan.

6km remaining from 157km

Tiralogno accelerates and when he swings over Joaquim Rodriguez follows through. Contador is instantly on his wheel. The pace slows again and the GC contenders spread across the road.

Sensing the lull, Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) jumps alone and opens a small gap at the front of the race.

5km remaining from 157km

Katusha lead the chase in support of Rodriguez and they bring the podium contenders back up to Barguil. The peloton has fragmented but there are 15 riders or so just about together at the head of the race.

5km remaining from 157km

Barguil accelerates again and is followed by Jerome Coppel (Cofidis). Coppel insists when Barguil swings over, and he has a lead of 50 metres or so on the elite red jersey group.

4km remaining from 157km

Coppel is holding nothing back here. His jersey flapping open in the breeze, the Frenchman has opened a decent gap on the red jersey group, where a temporary truce has broken out.

4km remaining from 157km

Coppel has a lead of 9 seconds at the 4km to  go banner. There are 20 riders or so in the red jersey group, where Fabio Aru is winding up for an attack.

3km remaining from 157km

That move from Aru was telegraphed but no less effective for it. He rips away from the red jersey group and bounds across the gap to Coppel.

3km remaining from 157km

Aru drops Coppel and the Sardinian is alone at the head of the race with a 10-second gap over the red jersey group, which is being led by Giampaolo Caruso of Katusha.

3km remaining from 157km

Dani Navarro (Cofidis) attacks in a bid to make it to Aru. He won't close the gap but his move has opened fissures in the red jersey group.

2km remaining from 157km

Joaquim Rodriguez puts in a searing acceleration. Valverde, Contador and Froome are lined up on his wheel. This quartet are on another level to everybody else and they are cruising across to Aru.

2km remaining from 157km

Chris Froome attacks from that elite chase group and bridges alone to Aru. Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez are lying 8 seconds back. Everybody else seems to be scattered across the mountainside.

2km remaining from 157km

Contador is letting Valverde do all of the work in the chasing group, which is 14 seconds down on Froome and Aru.

1km remaining from 157km

Froome leads Aru out in front, while Contador finally comes to the front of the chase group and leads Valverde and Rodriguez in pursuit. The gap is 12 seconds.

1km remaining from 157km

Contador unleashes a fierce acceleration, then Rodriguez responds with one of his own. The three Spaniards are closing the gap to Aru and Froome. They're within sight once again and the deficit is less than 10 seconds.

1km remaining from 157km

Aru leads over the top of the climb. Valverde swings over and demands that Contador does the work to try and close the gap.

Froome and Aru will stay clear. Froome powers on the front to try and pad out their advantage. Aru will fancy his chances in the sprint.

Fabio Aru (Astana) wins stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana ahead of Chris Froome.

Rodriguez, Valverde and Contador come in 14 seconds down. Froome will move up to second overall, and his deficit to Contador will be within 1:20 or so once bonuses have been taken into consideration.

Valverde won the sprint for third place, 13 seconds down. Rodriguez was fourth, Contador took fifth. Samuel Sanchez was sixth, 17 seconds down. Warren Barguil and Dan Martin came home in a group 48 seconds down.

Contador's lead over Froome in the general classification is now 1:19. Valverde is third at 1:32.

Result:

1 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky 00:00:01
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar 00:00:13
4 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
5 Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo
6 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC 00:00:17
7 Daniel Navarro (Spa) Cofidis 00:00:33
8 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha 00:00:48
9 Damiano Caruso (Ita) Cannondale
10 Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Shimano
 

General classification:

1 Alberto Contador (Spa) Tinkoff-Saxo 71:38:37
2 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky 00:01:19
3 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar 00:01:32
4 Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha 00:02:29
5 Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana 00:03:15
6 Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin-Sharp 00:06:52
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) BMC 00:06:59
8 Warren Barguil (Fra) Giant-Shimano 00:09:12
9 Daniel Navarro (Spa) Cofidis 00:09:44
10 Damiano Caruso (Ita) Cannondale 00:09:45
 

The final climb proved tougher than most had anticipated, a consequence, perhaps of the ferocious pace throughout the day's stage. The top five on the general classification - Contador, Froome, Valverde, Rodriguez and Aru - were the top five on today's stage, and that quintet seemed to have an extra gear to everybody else in the final four kilometres this afternoon.

Alberto Contador was not quite as effervescent as at La Farrapona, and conceded ground to Froome, but still showed no signs that his injury-hit build-up is beginning to take a toll. He remains the strong favourite to close out the race and claim overall victory in Santiago on Sunday, though he will surely face an onslaught from Froome on the Puerto de Ancares on Saturday afternoon.

Thanks for joining our live coverage of the Vuelta this afternoon. A full report, results and pictures will follow here, and we'll have all the news and reaction from Galicia here on Cyclingnews.

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