Stage 18 of the Tour of Spain has all but decided the race after Andrey Kashehkin and overall leader Alexandre Vinokourov finished together and ahead of the field on the Vuelta?s final summit finish.

The two Astana riders took off on the viciously steep eight kilometre climb of La Pandera - first Vinokourov went a third of the way up and Kashechkin shortly afterwards - in a joint attack that shattered any hopes arch-rival Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D?Epargne-Illes Balears) might have had of winning his home race.

The Kazakhs completed the last part of the climb together, with Vino? so confident of his chances overall that he even allowed Kashechkin to take the win and bigger time bonus on offer: it was Astana?s fourth stage victory in this year?s Vuelta.

Valverde seemed to crack totally when Vinokourov attacked, but recovered a little later to limit the gap to 32 seconds and fourth place on the stage.

However, the Spaniard admitted later that he would probably have to be satisfied with second place in Madrid behind Vinokourov, having led the race for over a week and a stage win early on.

?I figured the best form of defence was an attack.? Vinokourov, who stretched his overall lead on Valverde from nine seconds to 53, said afterwards.

?Then when Kash? got across and we could finish together, it was the perfect outcome.? Asked if he expected more attacks from Valverde between here and Madrid, Vinokourov simply answered. ?No, I don?t think so.?

Kashechkin, who moved up to third overall after CSC?s Carlos Sastre finished 48 seconds down, was more than delighted with taking the first major Tour stage of his career.

?Today Alexandre worked for me, tomorrow I might do the same for him. We?re friends and that?s what friends are for.? he said. Apparently the Kazakhs success in Spain is having a huge impact back home: ?Even the President of Kazakhstan is watching the race on television every night.? Kashechkin reported. ?So we?ve got a patriotic duty to help each other.?

Friday?s 205 kilometre stage from Jaen to Ciudad Real has some difficult climbs and heavy terrain early on, but the final 50 kilometres are largely flat. Unless a breakaway gets a huge time gap early on, the chances are we?ll see a bunch sprint.

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