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La Vuelta: Live updates from Stage 18

Good morning and welcome to VeloNews.com’s live coverage of the 18th stage of the Vuelta a España. Today’s 193-km 18th stage to the ski area at La Covatilla will be Roberto Heras' best chance to seal the Vuelta a España and the last chance for everyone else narrow their losses in what will be Heras' backyard.The stage features four rated climbs: the Category 1 Puerto de Honduras at 116 km, two Cat. 2 climbs at 150 km and 168 km, respectively, and the summit finish up the "especial" climb to La Covatilla. The 9.5-km climb rises 760 meters with an average grade of 8 percent with ramps as steep

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Good morning and welcome to VeloNews.com’s live coverage of the 18th stage of the Vuelta a España.

Today’s 193-km 18th stage to the ski area at La Covatilla will be Roberto Heras’ best chance to seal the Vuelta a España and the last chance for everyone else narrow their losses in what will be Heras’ backyard.The stage features four rated climbs: the Category 1 Puerto de Honduras at 116 km, two Cat. 2 climbs at 150 km and 168 km, respectively, and the summit finish up the “especial” climb to La Covatilla. The 9.5-km climb rises 760 meters with an average grade of 8 percent with ramps as steep as 10.6 percent. It’s no Angliru, but it will be decisive. Kelme’s Vicente Belda says he has two cards to play: second-place Aitor Gonzalez at 35 seconds and Oscar Sevilla at 1:08 back. We have a beautiful sunny morning for the start in Salamanca. There are huge crowds here to cheer hometown heroes Santiago Blanco (iBanesto.com) and Roberto Heras, who lives in nearby Bejar.

All riders remaining in the Vuelta have signed in … This is being called the etapa reina, the queen’s stage — more so than the Angliru because that was such a disaster.

Before the start of the race, Heras said: “I know I have to attack today and try to get more time on Aitor Gonzalez. I’d like to get at least one minute on him, but it all depends on how my legs are feeling and more importantly his. I’m very happy to be racing in front of my family and friends and I hope to make a spectacle for them today.”

Clouds building on La Covatilla already, temperatures expected to be 8-C (about 50F).

Roads to Covatilla are smooth and wide, so shouldn’t have the difficulties there were at Angliru with the narrow roads.

Don’t expect for things to wait until Covatilla: watch for heavy attacks on Puerto de Honduras, cat.1 at 116 km, especially with Coast and Kelme divided by less than one minute in the team competition category. Kelme and ONCE will be trying to isolate Heras over Honduras and the two category-two climbs leading to the base of Covatilla. venga, viva la vuelta!

1:30 p.m. – We are 55km into today’s stage and we have an early break of 19 riders off the front. Most notable among them are the sprinters Jan Svorada, Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel, who appear to be pushing the battle for the points jersey all the way up to the base of the day’s big climbs.

1:40 p.m. — The men in the lead have an advantage of 3:45 at the 60km mark. Today’s first hour of racing was covered at an average speed of 49.7kph. That won’t last.

1:55 p.m. — That group of 19 riders is off the front, 4:40 ahead of the peloton. The peloton is driven by Saeco and USPS — among the group are sprinters fighting for the first two point sprints before the day’s first hard climb — Puerto de Honduras at 116 km:

Sprint results
Sprint at 50 km: 1. Jan Svorada; 2. Alessandro Petacchi; 3. Erik Zabel Sprint at 63 km: 1. Petacchi; 2. Zabel; 3. Davide Bramati —

Saeco’s Gilberto Simoni — a favorite for a stage-win today to make up for his otherwise disappointing run in the overall classification — puctured, but quickly got back on to the lead bunch.

Sunny, clear, warm — great day for a bike race. And the bunch is flying!

2:28 p.m.–The 19 leaders are coming up on the 100km mark. They will soon be hitting the lower slopes of the Cat. 1 Puerto de Honduras. Right now, they have a lead of 4:48, but there are a lot of sprinters in the group and that advantage should whither quickly.

2:48 p.m. — At km 109, the leaders are on the toughest part of the climb. Their advantage, once over 6:30 is now around 5:00. Saeco is setting the pace at the front of the peloton. The climbing will continue for another 7km, however, and that lead should continue to drop.

3:10 p.m. — Up and over the Hondouras, the leaders are still holding on to a healthy advantage of around 4:00 minutes.

3:33 p.m — The lead group is still off the front with an advantage of 5:58. With a gap like that, they may stay out to the finish.

Behind, the field is intact, meaning that the GC contest may come down to the final climb to La Covatilla. The Saeco team is leading the peloton. Heras is in there with several teammates around him

Meanwhile, ONCE’s Jorg Jaksche has withdrawn from the race. We have no details as to why.

3:47 p.m. — The peloton is working its way over the Cat. 2 Tornovacas. With Saeco at the front — intent on shrinking the leaders’ advantage of 5:12. The peloton is relatively intact. Coming up, the Cat. 2 Tremedal and then the final haul to the finish.

4:01 p.m. — With about 40km remaining, Santiago Blanco has attacked from the breakaway group. He’sa local from Salamanca, so he seems to be making a show for the home crowd.

4:03 p.m. — The word is that Jaksche –who started the day in 11th overall — pulled out because of knee troubles.

The men in the break are still 5:00 up the road. Blanco has a growing advantage on that break. He’s at 30 seconds right now. He may be able to get a stage win, though he is not a GC threat — he’s in 39th at 52:26.

4:10 p.m. —Blanco is now 1:30 ahead of his former breakaway companions. He’s reaching the lower slopes of the Cat. 2 Tremedal.

The other men in the break are now 4:17 ahead of the field.

4:18 p.m. — Blanco is working his way up the Tremedal. He is about 5:30 ahead of the peloton. The peloton is on the lower portion of the climb. The field is still intact and Heras still has a good group of teammates with him, including Vande Velde and Rubiera.

4:22 p.m. — Blanco is adding to his lead. He is about 6:30 ahead of the field. Behind him, the remnants of the break are being pulled back. Petacchi and Zabel have been pulled back.

4:32 p.m. — Blanco is well ahead of the next group — three survivors of the original break of 19.

The peloton is closing in on the top of the climb and, still, Heras has strong support from his teammates. There have been no attacks from the field, which should do Heras well as we head toward the “especial” climb to La Covatilla.

4:43 p.m. — Blanco is still well ahead of the field. He is now three minutes ahead of the group of three, including his teammate Flecha. He is now 6:30 ahead of the field.

Meanwhile, the peloton is now 20km from the finish.

4:57 p.m. — The peloton is now 10km from the finish and coming on to the lower slopes of the climb.

Postal riders Vande Velde and Rubiera are at the front. All of the biggies are there, too, though. If Heras wants to widen his advantage over Gonzalez, he has to do something now.

Blanco is now 7km from the finish.

5:02 p.m. — With 8km to go, the peloton is coming up on the steep part of the climb. Heras is alone… sort of. Oddly enough, there are two Aqua e Sapone riders setting pace at the front.

Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Acqua e Sapone is still setting tempo for Heras and they are now moving off the front. Gonzalez is following, but not staying on.

5:06 p.m. — Heras has finally moved ahead of his temporary “teammate.”

He is now off on his own. Gonzalez is holding his own. He is maybe 25 seconds behind Heras. Oscar Sevilla is coming up to join him.

5:08 p.m. — Oooooooo …. Gonzalez has caught Heras.

5:09 p.m. — Now Beloki and Sevilla have joined Heras and Gonzalez. BigMat’s Garcia Casas has joined them, too.

Casas has attacked, but Heras follows. So do the others.

5:11 p.m. — Oh by the way, Blanco continues off on his own. He is 3:30 ahead.

Heras now attacks again. Beloki has joined him.

5:12 p.m. — Nope Beloki is not staying with him.

Heras is now alone and flying!

5:13 p.m. — Sevilla is now catching Beloki… Gonzalez is fading.

Meanwhile Blanco is moving up to within 2km of the finish. Heras has 3.5km to go.

5:15 p.m. — Heras is now just 2:15 behind Blanco.

He has a 10-second gap on Beloki.

5:17 p.m. — With 3km to go, Heras is now 10 seconds ahead of Beloki. More importantly, Gonzalez is now 28 seconds back.

Heras is just 1:46 behind Blanco.

5:19 — With 2km to go, Gonzalez is 32 seconds behind Heras.

Blanco is just crawling up the climb. He risks being caught before the finish.

5:21 p.m. — Blanco is within 1km to go.

Heras is closing in fast.

5:22 p.m. Heras is within 1km, 1:08 behind Blanco.

5:23 p.m. — Blanco gets the win!

Heras sprints to the line… 39 seconds behind Blanco. Now lets see how Gonzalez does.

5:24 p.m. — Sevilla and Gonzales finish together… 36 seconds behind Heras. Heras now leads the Vuelta by 1:11.