Tour of Spain: Alberto Contador retains overall lead as Daniele Bennati wins stage 18
Italy's Daniele Bennati of the RadioShack-Nissan squad ended a run of four straight bunch sprint wins by Germany's John Degenkolb in the Vuelta a Espana today with a narrow victory over Britain's Ben Swift.
Spaniard Alberto Contador retained the overall lead with three stages remaining in the race.
At the end of a high-speed, four-hour dash across the plains of northern Spain, Bennati inched ahead of Swift at the end of a drawn-out sprint in Valladolid's city centre. Australia's Allan Davis was third and Degenkolb fifth.
Bennati, 31, dedicated his first victory of 2012 to Belgium's Wouter Weylandt, the previous winner of a Vuelta stage in Valladolid in 2008, who was killed in a crash during the 2011 Giro d'Italia, and to a Spanish member of his team's management who has fallen ill.
"It was a very difficult sprint and I'd like to think that Wouter helped me take the victory today," Bennati told reporters.
"He was a team mate of mine, and he gave me strength today."
Bennati, a former race leader of the Vuelta in 2007, 2008 and 2011, said his sixth stage win of his career in the Spanish Grand Tour was a result "of slowly but steadily getting better form throughout the Vuelta".
"My nickname is The Panther, and panthers can always give one last swipe of their claws in a fight," he added.
Contador remained in the overall lead, one minute 52 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde, with another Spaniard, Joaquim Rodriguez, in third.
"It was a fast stage, I am sure we averaged 48 kph at least," Contador, who took the lead from Rodriguez on Wednesday with a spectacular long-distance attack, told reporters.
"There was always the chance of splits in the wind so I had to be well positioned and close to the front. I'm glad it's over, one day less to go now and a day without problems."
The Saxo Bank-Tinkoff rider said he had spent much of the 204.5-km stage, the longest of the 2012 Vuelta, "thinking about how I took the lead and how perfect our tactic had been".
"I talked it over with Joaquim during the stage and to tell the truth, even though we give each other a hammering during the stages, we discuss it in a friendly manner afterwards. And that's a good thing about our sport."
After Friday's straightforward run from Penafiel to La Lastrilla, Saturday's final mountain-top stage finishes on the summit of the Bola del Mundo.
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