Stage 18: Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid, 204.5km
After more than a week in hibernation, a flat stage allowed the sprinters to dust off the cobwebs. It was a routine race but by no means an easy one – an average speed of 48kph was enough to shatter the peloton in the latter stages – at the end of which the experience of Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) edged out the youth of Ben Swift (Sky).
The day’s break was initiated at kilometre zero and eventually settled down to a group of five riders including Martijn Keizer (Vacansoleil-DCM). A lead of five minutes was never going to be enough, and they were easily swept up with more than 15km still to go, with Keizer the last to be caught.
With several teams continuing to keep the pace high, the peloton split in the closing kilometres. First a group of about 40 found themselves detached off the back, with further fractures soon appearing. In a chaotic finish, with John Degenkolb‘s Argos-Shimano out of position and no one else controlling the front, it was left to Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) to open up the sprint. Swift came around him, and although he pulled out 1½ lengths on Bennati, the veteran Italian’s late charge proved to be the better-timed as the British rider faded, and a well-executed bike-throw at the line saw him snatch a photo-finish victory. Orica-GreenEDGE’s Allan Davis was third.
VeloVoices rider of the day
He has never been the fastest pure sprinter in the mould of a Cavendish or a Greipel, but 31-year old Daniele Bennati is plenty quick enough and has the experience and judgement that can be worth that all-important metre on the road. Ben Swift should really have won this stage, but to me it looked like he reacted too hastily to Mondory’s jump, whereas Bennati remained calm and picked his moment to launch his sprint. It was a close-run thing but it was enough – a good lesson to learn for the young Sky sprinter if he wants to make a step up the pecking order in the likely event of Cav’s departure.
Having already recorded a second and a third already during this Vuelta, this was a richly deserved win for a rider who has always ridden well in the Grand Tours – today was his sixth win at the Vuelta, to add to three at the 2008 Giro and a pair at the 2007 Tour – and also has a consistent record in the spring Classics. He has even won the green jersey in Spain (in 2007), and in a climber-dominated race this year he has consolidated his sixth position in the points classification – the all-conquering Degenkolb (in fourth) being the only sprinter above him.
Of course, rumours that Bennati’s victory today was spurred on by Panache’s inclusion of him (and his cat) in his 10 things I love about cycling feature yesterday are purely unfounded. Or are they?
It was no surprise to see riders from Cofidis (Luis Angel Mate) and Andalucia (Gustavo Veloso) in today’s break, desperately tying to make an impact for their sponsors. Cofidis have had a miserable Vuelta, with David Moncoutie barely making an impression on the King of the Mountains competition which he has won in the past four editions, and barely a sniff of a stage victory. Their highest-placed rider on GC is Mickael Buffaz – a lowly 47th, more than 83 minutes off the pace. Andalucia have done okay – they have been prominent in breaks throughout, but they would have been stung badly by fellow wild-card Caja Rural’s Antonio Piedra‘s storming solo victory on the fabled Covadonga.
The only real surprise was that there weren’t more underperforming teams ensuring they put someone in the day’s break. For instance, has anyone noticed Lotto-Belisol much in this race? Maybe they have actually just packed up and quietly gone home …
No change today, and precious little else of note. The top of the GC was unchanged, and victory in the points competition was already out of reach of the sprinters. Intriguingly, Katusha’s Gatis Smukulis was put in the breakaway group, offering the prospect of a bold attack by Joaquim Rodriguez. It was hard to see where and how the former race leader could make a move stick, though, and a combination of the high pace throughout and him possibly not feeling great meant the threat ultimately never crystallised.
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