Radioshack-Nissan rider Daniele Bennati (L) of Italy crosses the finish line to win the 18th stage of the Tour of Spain “La Vuelta” cycling race between Aguilar de Campoo and Valladolid, September 6, 2012. (REUTERS/Miguel Vidal)

By Alasdair Fotheringham

VALLADOLID, Spain, Sept 6 (Reuters) – 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 on Thursday 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.