Meanwhile Chris Froome acknowledges it will be difficult to dislodge Cobo at top of GC

Lampre-ISD rider Francesco Gavazzi, winner of Stage 18 of the 2011 Vuelta this afternoon in Noja, has dedicated his victory to team mate Alessandro Spezialetti, forced out of the race on Tuesday due after breaking his collarbone in a crash. The 27-year-old believes that his forthcoming switch to Astana will give him more scope to shine after taking the biggest win of his career today in a sprint from Quick Step’s Kristoff Vandewalle. Both had been in a 17-strong breakaway group that had got away early in today’s 174.5 kilometre stage from Solares.

With none of the riders in the break representing a threat to the top ten in the GC – the highest placed escapee was Robert Kiserlovski, who started the day more than 17 minutes off the race lead – once the group was away, it was always going to stay away.

RadioShack rider Sergio Paulinho, winner of the Bastille Day stage in last year’s Tour de France, went on a solo attack from 30 kilometres out to try and grab the second stage win of his career, but was caught with around 3 kilometres to go, with Gavazzi and Vandewalle subsequently getting just ahead of the remnants of the break to fight it out for the stage win.

Sergio Paulinho attacks on Vuelta Stage 18 (copyright: Tour of Spain/Graham Watson)

Dedicating his win to Spezialetti, Gavazzi said: “We’re friends and we’ve had fun together until he crashed. Paulinho went away strongly but luckily, he was alone and the finale was difficult for a lone rider because of the head wind.

“With 2km to go, when I saw Vandewalle attacking, I followed as the other guys were looking at each other. Maybe I’m lucky in this part of the world. I’ve won here in Cantabria and nearby in the Basque Country, possibly because the courses are adapted to my characteristics. For sure, I like to race in this area.

The 27-year-old, who had not won a Grand Tour stage before today, added that he will be switching teams at the end of the season in the hope of having more room to prove his abilities.

“For next year, I’ve signed a contract with Astana to ride with DS Giuseppe Martinelli and to get more space for myself,” he explained. “I want to do well at the big classics where I want to challenge the world’s best riders, which is not exactly possible while riding in the same team as Petacchi, Scarponi and Cunego.

“Martinelli got me turning pro with Lampre, then he went to another direction,” Gavazzi continued, adding: “Astana is one of the best organised teams in the world.”

Another rider who got into today’s break was Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez who has suffered the past couple of days following a hard fall late on in Tuesday’s Stage 16, and the Katusha rider did enough at the intermediate sprints and in finishing eighth on the stage to take back the green points jersey that Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema had wrested from him yesterday.

Bauke Mollema gets just one day in the green jersey (copyright: Tour of Spain/Graham Watson)

“After the bad day I had at La Covatilla and the two crashes I had before the stage finishes at Talavera and Haro, the remaining goal I have is to win the points classification,” said Rodriguez after the finish. “I wasn’t able to go for the stage win today but I went in the breakaway for the green jersey,” he added. “It would be so nice to go on the final podium in Madrid!”

Also in the break was AG2R’s Matteo Montaguti, seeking to make up ground on David Moncoutié in the mountains competition. Starting the day 22 points behind the Cofidis rider, who is bidding to win the polka dot jersey for the fourth year in a row, Montaguti reduced the gap to just seven points, though he was denied from taking more points by another Cofidis rider, Nico Sijmens.

A good break for Nico Sijmens and Joaquin Rodriguez (copyright: Tour of Spain/Graham Watson)

“It’s been a very hard stage because I didn’t think that Montaguti could climb so well,” said Sijmens afterwards. “He follows riders like Rodríguez with no problem.

“At the team meeting this morning, my directeur sportif Stéphane Augé told me to stick on Montaguti’s wheel and take the points away from him.

“I managed to beat him at the top of four of the five climbs of the day and I forced him to go for long sprints because he boxed me in on the first two occasions. I’ve spent a lot of energy but I still managed to finish fourth. I think I’ve done a good job.”

Race leader Juan Jose Cobo said after today’s stage that he enjoyed having the opportunity to relax as he rode through his home region of Cantabria in the red jersey, but added that he is alert to any attempt by Chris Froome to try and close is 13-second deficit.

“The breakaway went early,” said the Geox-TMC rider. “It helped me enjoy my day with the red jersey on home soil. Today it was just a question of being vigilant and lucky. There was no danger. Everything went well.

Juan Jose Cobo keeps a close eye on Chris Froome (copyright: Tour of Spain/Graham Watson)

“We’ve controlled the first part of the stage with two riders from Geox-TMC at the front of the bunch. With the help of other teams whose spots on GC were threatened, we’ve reached the finish the way we wanted.

Cobo revealed that he was still coming to terms with the off-the-bike demands from fans and media alike that come with the status of race leader.

“I’m not used to these things that take every moment from you for photos and autographs,” he stated. “We race just as well as we can. We need a lot of time for resting in a three-week race, but I realise how much time we lose at giving interviews. I’d like to please and satisfy everyone but people have to understand that it’s impossible.”

Speaking of tomorrows’ Stage 19 from Noja to Bilbao, when the race returns to the Basque country for the first time since the 1970s, Cobo said his team had marked the stage with “a big X mark for danger.

“The climb of El Vivero [close to Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Igor Anton’s house] is very close to the finish,” he continued.

“I don’t know if the riders from Sky will fight for time bonus or if they’ll attack me, but I’m sure they’ll try something. I don’t believe that I have the race in my hands with only 13 seconds difference between myself and Chris Froome.

Asked whether the battle for the overall title might go all the way to Madrid on Sunday, Cobo admitted, “I wouldn’t like to have to race the last stage like a criterium. Ideally, I’d like to arrive with this advantage of 13 seconds in order to not worry about the intermediate sprints and be able to enjoy the last day of racing.

“I’ll suffer if I have to contest the time bonuses until Madrid,” the Spaniard added. “I’ll fight anyway though. No matter how, it’s important to win the Vuelta.”

Froome himself, who rode today in the combined jersey, although it is Cobo who tops that classification too, conceded that it would be tough to overhaul the Spaniard in the overall standings.

“My mission today was to stay out of trouble, so it’s mission accomplished,” he said. “The team was around me and Bradley protecting us from the wind all day. That was a fantastic team effort. I was impressed. I’m one day closer to Madrid. It’s gonna be hard to beat Cobo.”

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.