Italian Classics specialist Alessandro Ballan provided one of the biggest surprises of this year’s Tour of Spain with a fine lone stage win in the Pyrenees.

On paper stage seven, a hideously long trek through the Pyrenees culminating in a double ascent of La Rabassa in Andorra, was a day made for the climbers. But Ballan?s infiltration of a five-man break in the first hour?s racing gave the Flanders 2007 winner – rarely seen on the front in the mountain stages – the edge on the favourites.

The atrocious weather – heavy rain, temperatures 20 degrees colder than on stage six, and dense fog, did not encourage a fast reaction from the favourites behind.

By the time Cofidis and Astana started to wind things up on the 223.2 kilometre stage in the main bunch, the quintet – none of them favourites for victory in Madrid – were still a good 10 minutes ahead.

Come the final ascent of La Rabassa – 16.4 kilometres long – Ballan attacked at the foot of the climb. With an advantage of over five minutes, and just two and a half minutes behind race leader Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) overall, a stage win and a spell in the maillot de oro were both real possibilities.

Ballan finally emerged from the mist at the summit of La Rabassa with an advantage of nearly three minutes over a group of favourites which had shrunk to a bare half dozen.

As a result, Ballan clinched both the stage win and a minute?s lead on American Levi Leipheimer overall -all thanks to taking the plunge early on and going all out in a break nearly 200 kilometres long.

It?s highly unlikely that the Italian will be in the lead after Sunday?s second mountainous stage, but it was a superb performance nonetheless.

And as for the favourites? The main bunch had shrunk to 45 riders the first time over the Rabassa, but the appalling weather and a climb with few really steep sections meant the options for attacking were limited.

The second time on the Rabassa Alberto Contador (Astana) did put in an acceleration in the final kilometre that took him to third place, 2-42 down on Ballan and just three seconds slower than second-placed Ezequiel Mosqueras (Xacobeo-Galicia).

Contador?s late charge sent Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D?Epargne) sliding backwards, losing nearly a minute by the summit. Previous race leader Sylvain Chavanel also suffered, finishing in 15th place, 3-21 down on Ballan. But both Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) were only a few seconds behind Contador.

Overall, Contador has leapfrogged ahead of Valverde, who slides down to fifth. But there?s still only 1-27 between Leipheimer, in second place, and Sastre in sixth.

In other words, after one long time trial and one very tough mountain stage, all of the favourites are still in with a chance of overall victory in Madrid. So far, the Vuelta 2008 has been seven days of intriguing stalemate.

TOUR OF SPAIN 2008: STAGE SEVEN RESULTS

Barbastro-Andorra

1. Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre 223.2km in 6h 15min 51secs


2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at 2m 42secs

3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 2m 45secs

4. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 2m 50secs

5. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana

6. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi

7. Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC-Saxo Bank at same time

8. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 3min 3secs

9. Marzio Bruseghin (Ita) Lampre at 3min 11secs

10. Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner at same time.

British

158. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 30min 7secs

OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE SEVEN

1. Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre in 23h 53min 26secs


2. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana at 1min

3. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis at 1min 21secs

4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 1min 34secs

5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 2min 6secs

6. Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC-Saxo Bank at 2min 27secs

7. Jurgen Van Goolen (Bel) CSC-Saxo Bank at 2min 59secs

8. Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia at same time

9. Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3min 17secs

10. Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 3min 23secs

British

130. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 48min 31secs

Tour of Spain 2008Alberto Contador

Tour of Spain 2008Carlos Sastre

Tour of Spain 2008Sylvain Chavanel, Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador

Tour of Spain 2008Alessandro Ballan takes the race lead

Photos by Graham Watson

TOUR OF SPAIN 2008

STAGE REPORTS

Stage six: Bettini wins, Chavanel leads

Stage five: time trial win for Leipheimer

Stage four: Bennati takes crash-strewn stage

Stage three: Boonen bounces back

Stage two: Valverde powers into lead

Stage one: Liquigas are surprise winners

NEWS

Tour of Spain rest day review 1

Tour of Spain on Eurosport (schedule)

Behind the scenes at the Tour of Spain

Tour of Spain – still a week too long?

Tour of Spain kicks off this weekend

PHOTOS

Stage six

Stage five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one