Alberto Contador maintains lead
VALLADOLID, Spain -- Overall leader Alberto Contador moved closer to winning the race for a second time, while Daniele Bennati won the 18th stage of the Spanish Vuelta on Thursday.
Bennati edged Ben Swift by a tire to win the 127-mile leg in 4 hours, 17 minutes, 17 seconds. Contador leads Alejandro Valverde by 1:52 and Joaquin Rodriguez is 2:28 behind in third place.
Contador finished 10 seconds behind Bennati, who won his seventh Vuelta stage.
"I just tried to stay attentive, to avoid any crashes and watch the direction of the wind as my team covered me very well to make it a day without worry," said Contador, who picked up his first stage win on Wednesday since returning from a two-year doping ban.
"Every day that goes by is very important because just about anything can happen on any day at this Vuelta," said the two-time Tour de France champion, admitting his legs were feeling the strain from his first major race since his return.
Contador tested positive for the stimulant clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France. He denied doping and blamed contaminated beef, but it cost him his third Tour title.
Contador's stage win Wednesday stunned Rodriguez, whose inability to respond to his fellow Spaniard's attack cost him the overall lead he had held since the fourth leg of the 21-stage race. Contador leads with an overall time of 72:25:21.
The 19th stage Friday is expected to favor sprinters. The stage on Saturday includes a mountain climb outside Madrid that offers Contador's pursuers one last opportunity to seize the red jersey from the 2008 winner.
The 67th edition of the Spanish race ends Sunday in Madrid.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press