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The Last Great Grand Tour Road Stage of 2006

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Unless everyone is completely exhausted, stage 18 will come down to one last all-out assault on an uncategorized climb. The route before Sierra de la Pandera is short and non-threatening (a description usually reserved for Jose Rujano)... before the last 40km of this 150km stage, there's only a cat-3 climb to warm up the legs. But at KM 117, the peloton departs Jaen and heads up -- over an unrated climb, then 11km to the alto de los Villares, then finally some 9km up the thigh-melting Pandera.

Who will rise up? Smartest money is on Valverde, if he's not exhausted, to at least make the cut. But that's suddenly a big if, and Vinokourov has looked like a man absolutely peaking, and propelled by an iron will to win. Don't rule out early attacks to put Valverde under pressure... why wait to attack the young Spaniard for his preferred conditions? Carlos Sastre and Andrey Kashechkin are both mere seconds on either side of the two-minute mark, so both are outside shots, especially with Sastre going backwards lately. Kashechkin needs only to mark Sastre today to steal his podium spot in the final ITT. But he's got a teammate in gold to think about as well.

Have at it!