Vuelta 18: Gavazzi wins big in Noja

Breakaway stays clear, Cobo remains in race lead

Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre) won the sprint of a two-man group to take the eighteenth stage of the Vuelta a Espana in Noja, easily outsprinting Quickstep's Jurgen Vandewalle. The two had broken out of a large escape group to fight for the win. Skil-Shimano's Alexandre Geniez took third.

The peloton had given up trying a serious chase early on, and enjoyed the view of the coast in the closing kilometers. Simon Geschke of Skil-Shimano lead them across the finish line 7:42 after Gavazzi.

Juan Jose Cobo (Geox-TMC) didn't have to fear for his jersey or his 13 second lead over Sky's Christopher Froome. Apart form the stage win, the real battles of the day were for the points and mountains jerseys.

It was the third win of the season for the 27-year-old Gavazzi, who also won stages at the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour of Portugal.

Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) rebounded from his injuries and crash from two days ago to reclaim the points jersey. The Spaniard had dropped to third place in the ranking, but made sure that he was in the day's escape group. 'Purito' won both of the intermediate sprints and finished eighth, giving him enough of a boost to move back into green.

David Moncoutie held on to his polka dot mountain jersey thanks to his Cofidis teammate Nico Sijmens, who was in the escape group along with Matteo Montaguti (AG2R), second in the ranking. The Italian did all he could to claim the jersey, but Sijmens managed to foil his plans by finishing ahead of him at four of the day's five climbs.

Battles for the jerseys

It took all of 10 kilometers for today's break group to form and get away. Joaquin Rodriguez, who has suffered since a crash two days ago, seemed to want to prove he wasn't done for yet and joined 16 others in flight.

Matteo Montaguti (AG2R), Martin Kohler (BMC), Nico Sijmens (Cofidis), Juan Jose Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre-ISD), Francis De Greef (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Robert Kiverlovski and Josep Jufre (Astana), Davide Malacarne and Kristof Vandewalle (Quickstep), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Volodymir Gustov (Saxo Bank), Alexandre Geniez and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano), Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervelo) and Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack) made up the group.

After a strenuous few days in the mountains and with so many teams represented up front, the peloton seemed delighted to let this group do what it wanted. The gap got up to 10:50 and then stayed within the nine-to-ten minute range.

Rodriguez showed himself eager to gain back as much time and pride as he could. The Spaniard was wearing the green points jersey when he crashed on the 16th stage, and despite his time losses had dropped to only third in that ranking, 11 points behind Rabobank's Bauke Mollema. He helped himself by winning both of the day's intermediate sprints.

There were a total of five ranked climbs on the day's stage, and they were the reason that Montaguti was in the escape. He had dropped to third in the mountain ranking, one point behind race leader Juan Jose Cobo (Geox) and 22 points behind David Moncoutie of Cofidis.

The Italian won the first climb, the category 3 Puerto de Bragula, gaining three points, but was only second at the second climb, the Alto del Caracol (category 2), for another three points and at the category 1 Puerto de Alisas. The latter two were won by Sijmens, who sprinted for the points to protect the lead of his Cofidis teammate.

The day's only category 1 climb, which came with about 50km to go, and the fight for the mountain points was enough to start breaking up the lead group. Behind them, individual riders tried to break from the peloton, including Nicolas Roche (AG2R) and Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil), riders who could potentially pose a threat to the red jersey if they were allowed to get too far away. But they were caught again.

After that climb, a ten-man lead group formed: Montaguti, Sijmens, Oroz, Rodriguez, Gavazzi, De Greef, Kiserlovski, Vandewalle, Gustov and Paulinho. They casually stretched the lead out to over 12 minutes.

Sijmens also took the mountain points on the category 3 Puerto de la Cruz Ursano, with Montaguti having given up hope and not sprinting for the summit, although he still finished second.

A disorganized group

With 30km to go, Paulinho took off out of the lead group. The Portugese rider just kept on going and built up his gap. Sijmens didn't have to worry about snapping up the points at the final climb, the Puerto de Fuente las Varas (category 3) as Paulinho took the top points, followed by, who else, Sijmens and Montaguti.

Paulinho had a lead of up to 50 seconds and looked clearly on his way to a solo win, but with 12km to go, it had dropped to 35 seconds. The chasers were eager to get their chance at the stage win, and turned up the speed on the chase. The disorganized group came closer and closer and if they hand managed to work together and co-ordinate their efforts, they could easily have caught him with eight or nine kilometers to go.

But with each riding for himself, they couldn't get things together – much to Kiserlovski's disgust, who was thinking he was doing far too much of the lead work. Whether it was the sheer power of their number, or whether Paulinho was slowing down, they came closer and closer.

Paulinho doggedly hung on, helped by the fact that the group continued to work against itself with constant attacks. Despite themselves, they caught the RadioShack rider with 2.5km to go.

That was the cue for Vandewalle to attack, soon followed by Gavazzi, who hung on to the Belgian's wheel. They went under the one kilometer marker seven seconds ahead of the nearest chaser, and Vandewalle led out the sprint and looked nervously over his shoulder. His fears were justified, as the Italian moved around him to easily take the sprint.

The remainder of the escape group dribbled over he finish line for the next four minutes. Behind them, the field was finally coming closer. A Leopard Trek rider tried to get away, but was caught again. Geschke won the sprint of honour of the large group.

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