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The fledgling Astana team enjoyed its best day in its short existence and Kazakh team leaders Andrei Kashechkin and Alexandre Vinokourov finished together at the summit of the Pandera on this afternoon's 18th stage of the Vuelta. Kashechkin took the stage victory and also moved up to third overall, but of much more significance was Vinokourov's increased advantage over Alejandro Valverde, who finished 32 seconds down and now lies 53 seconds behind the Kazakh with just three stages remaining.
The main contenders stayed together until the final climb, although Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne team did all they could to keep the pace high in an effort to pressurise Vino and his Astana cohorts. However, once the leaders reached the 14 and 15 per cent slopes of the final climb and began to reel in the members of an earlier breakaway, it was Valverde and his team who wilted.
Vinokourov, sensing Valverde was struggling on the steep slopes and, like yesterday, was once more lacking support when it was most needed, attacked 5km from the finish following an earlier dart by Kashechkin. The pair came together a couple of kilometres from the finish as Valverde and Carlos Sastre continued to struggle.
Such was their advantage at the finish that Vinokourov was happy to let his team-mate win the stage and forsake some bonus seconds, before the pair fell into each other's arms beyond the line. Barring a huge turnaround in form or fortune in Saturday's 28km time trial, both should now finish on podium in Madrid, with Valverde sandwiched between them.
Stage 18, Granada-Sierra de la Pandera
1 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana 153km in 3.57.39
2 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana
3 Jos Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval 0.30
4 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0.32
5 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval 0.35
6 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 0.46
8 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel
9 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 0.48
10 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
1 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 71.27.08
2 Valverde 0.53
3 Kashechkin 2.06
4 Sastre 2.51
5 Gomez Marchante 5.06
6 Danielson 7.05
7 Sanchez 8.23
8 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel 8.28
9 Perez 10.04
10 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d'Epargne 10.06
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