Mark Cavendish made it a hat-trick of Stage wins in his debut Vuelta a Espana in Salamanca this afternoon, just holding off Juan José Haedo of Team Saxo Bank on the line as the Argentine desperately tried to pass the HTC-Columbia rider.
With Garmin-Transitions' Tyler Farrar off the pace in the sprint, finishing fourth, Cavendish has a 32-point lead over the American at the top of the points classification, and with just two sprint stages to come looks set to claim the first points classifcation in a major tour of his career.
Inside the final kilometre, it had been Quickstep forcing the pace, with Wouter Weylandt determined to get himself a stage win in this year’s race, but once again the Australian Matt Goss went at exactly the right time to lead Cavendish out for the sprint to the line.
A flat profile meant that today was always going to be a day when the sprinters took centre stage, with the main overall contenders largely keeping out of trouble as they recover from the ardours of the Cantabrian mountains and yesterday’s time trial ahead of Saturday’s decisive final ascent to the Bola del Mundo outside Madrid.
While the order of the GC is unchanged after today’s stage, with Vincenzo Nibali remaining in the race leader's red jersey, not all of the riders towards the top of the general classification got to enjoy a day's stress-free riding sheltered by their team mates, however.
The exception was HTC-Columbia’s Peter Velits, surprise winner of yesterday’s individual time trial and now third overall, whom Cavendish praised afterwards for putting his own GC ambitions aside to help play his part in the Manxman’s victory.
Velits, whose twin brother Martin is also in the HTC-Columbia line-up for the race, fully played his part as the team sought to reel in an eight-man breakaway that had escaped early on in the 149km stage from Valladolid, the last members were caught as the race approached the 10km to go banner.
Shortly after, Philippe Gilbert of Omega Pharma-Lotto, who wore the race leader’s red jersey in the opening week of the race, went of the front of the peloton, perhaps as an early rehearsal for next month’s World Championship road race between Melbourne and Geelong, but the Belgian was reeled in with around 5 kilometres to go.
Two big names who weren’t around to contest the sprint today were Oscar Freire of Rabobank and Cervelo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd, both of whom are now making their final preparations for the World Championship.
Vuelta Stage 18 result 1 CAVENDISH, Mark (HTC-Columbia) 3h 27' 11'' 2 HAEDO, Juan Jose (Team Saxo Bank) same time 3 CARDOSO, Manuel (Footon-Servetto) 4 FARRAR, Tyler (Garmin-Transitions) 5 DUMOULIN, Samuel (Cofidis) 6 FÖRSTER, Robert (Milram) 7 MATA, Enrique (Footon-Servetto) 8 VAN AVERMAET, Greg (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 9 WEYLANDT, Wouter (Quickstep) 10 HONDO, Danilo (Lampre-Farnese Vini) 11 GOSS, Matt (HTC-Columbia) 12 HUTAROVICH, Yauheni (Francaise des Jeux) 13 KADRI, Biel (AG2R-La Mondiale) 14 WALKER, Johnnie (Footon-Servetto) + 5'' 15 BENNATI, Daniele (Liquigas-Doimo) 16 NIBALI, Vincenzo (Liquigas-Doimo) 17 VELITS, Peter (HTC-Columbia) 18 MOSQUERA, Ezequiel (Xacobeo-Galicia) 19 DAVIS, Allan (Astana) 20 SÁNCHEZ, Luis León (HTC-Columbia) Vuelta overall standings after Stage 18 1 NIBALI, Vincenzo (Liquigas-Doimo) 74h 47' 06'' 2 MOSQUERA, Ezequiel (Xacobeo-Galicia) + 38'' 3 VELITS, Peter (HTC-Columbia) + 1' 59'' 4 SCHLECK, Frank (Team Saxo Bank) + 3' 43'' 5 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (Katusha) + 3' 48'' 6 TONDO, Xavier (Cervelo TestTeam) + 3' 48'' 7 DANIELSON, Thomas (Garmin-Transitions) + 3' 58'' 8 ROCHE, Nicholas (AG2R-La Mondiale) + 4' 02'' 9 SASTRE, Carlos (Cervelo TestTeam) + 4' 16'' 10 SÁNCHEZ, Luis León (Caisse d'Epargne) + 5' 42'' 11 GARCÍA, David (Xacobeo-Galicia) + 7' 22'' 12 KARPETS, Vladimir (Katusha) + 8' 55'' 13 NIEVE, Mikel (Euskaltel-Euskadi) + 9' 27'' 14 MONCOUTIE, David (Cofidis) + 10' 40'' 15 GUSEV, Vladimir (Katusha) + 12' 21'' 16 PLAZA, Ruben (Caisse d'Epargne) + 13' 58'' 17 LE MEVEL, Christophe (Francaise des Jeux) + 15' 16'' 18 KASHECHKIN, Andrey (Lampre-Farnese Vini) + 16' 17'' 19 BAKELANDTS, Jan (Omega Pharma-Lotto) + 19' 30'' 20 LARSSON, Gustav (Team Saxo Bank) + 19' 43''
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.