Just when it seemed that the Tour of Spain overall classification was going to remain set in stone until Sunday?s finale in Madrid, CSC?s Carlos Sastre managed to blow the race apart on Thursday?s stage 18 - if not completely, at least enough to revitalize the near-stagnant fight for gc.
A long-range attack inspired by Sastre saw a 12-man move go clear close to the summit of the Puerto de Mijares, the first climb of the day, and stay away throughout the stage to Avila.
In a textbook piece of racing, Sastre sent three CSC team-mates up the road in the first hour. He then bridged across to the early break three kilometres from the summit of Mijares and the race was on.
Even if Denis Menchov (Rabobank) smelled trouble from afar and tore across immediately afterwards, closely followed by almost all the race favourites, his fellow Russian Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse D?Epargne) did not - or could not.
Come the finish in Avila - a mere 100 kilometres later - Efimkin had lost nearly two and a half minutes on the stage leaders, and slid from second to fifth overall. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), Sastre and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) each moved up a slot as a result, to second, third, and fourth respectively.
The stage was won by Andalucia-Cajasur?s Luis Perez with a gutsy lone move from the 12-man break 10 kilometres from the line.
But Perez swansong - the 33-year-old is due to retire after the race - and the huge success a Vuetla stage win represented for his tiny Continental Professional squad was partly overshadowed by Sastre?s dramatic attack.
The CSC leader revealed he had laid a smokescreen by telling the press he was tired and would not make any more attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday. It turned out, on the other hand, that he had been plotting and plannign in the meantime.
?When I sent my team-mates up the road, we wanted them to get a good margin. The plan was then for me to bridge across.?
?It worked out perfectly, and I?ve moved up a place overall. That?s important.?
Sastre refused to comment on what his plans are for Friday?s final mountain stage, but it seems certain after Thursday?s success he will be more than motivated to attack again.
How far will up the podium it will finally get the Spaniard remains to be seen - although in any case, for the Vuelta, after ten days where the overall classification has barely changed, his aggressive racing has been a real breath of fresh of air.
Tour of Spain stage 18 Talavera de la Reina - Avila 153.5kms
1 Luis Perez (Spain) Andalucia-Caja Sur 3-43-45
2 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 41sec
3 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas
4 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
5 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia
7 Stephane Goubert (Fra) Ag2R
8 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
9 Maximie Monfort (Bel) Cofidis
10 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne all st
120 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 27-45
Overall Classification after 18 stages
1 Denis Menchov (Russia) Rabobank 74-22-13
2 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 2-27
3 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at 3-02
4 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-01
5 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 4-27
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 4-35
7 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 6-17
8 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas at 7-41
9 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 7-47
10 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 8-48
132 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 2-14-46
TOUR OF SPAIN 2007: STAGE REPORTS
Stage 17: Bennati leads Italian sprint fest
Stage 16: Duque takes transition stage
Stage 15: Menchov stays on top
Stage 14: Almost goodbye, but Discovery still winning
Stage 13: Klier ends four-year gap with win
Stage 12: Petacchi racks up the wins
Stage 11: Petacchi puts troubles behind him for stage win
Rest day review
Stage 10: Menchov proves he's the boss
Stage nine: Menchov takes control
Stage eight (TT): Devolder soars to race lead
Stage seven: Zabel surprise winner
Stage six: Freire outguns Petacchi for stage hat-trick
Stage five: Freire takes second bunch sprint victory
Stage four: Efimkin upstages favourites in Vuelta
Stage three: Bettini bounces back with Vuelta stage win
Stage two: Freire nets stage win and Vuelta lead
Stage one: Bennati takes race lead in bunch sprint
Tour of Spain preview, including stage and team list
Astana out of 2007 Tour of Spain
Eurosport cycling TV schedule for September
Vuelta confirms support for ASO in ProTour row
Vinokourov wins 2006 Tour of Spain overall
Official site: www.lavuelta.com.
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