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Astana?s Levi Leipheimer clinched Wednesday?s time trial and claimed his first ever lead in a major Tour on Wednesday. Team-mate and top favourite Alberto Contador finished fourth and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse D?Epargne) a surprising fifth.

Virtually the first question Leipheimer was asked by reporters after blasting through to victory in the 42.5 kilometre flat time trial at Ciudad Real and donning the leader?s gold jersey in the process was: “Who?s the leader of Astana now? You or Contador??

?Alberto, Alberto,? Leipheimer quickly answered – but the question, at least until the Pyrenees on Saturday, is more than valid.

49 seconds faster than Contador, 59 seconds faster than Valverde and 1-30 ahead of Sastre, the American?s powerful time trial ride has changed what was a three-sided battle into something infinitely more complicated – and interesting.

Equally important from the point of view for the fans is that overall, the time differences remain fairly tight. This is a real relief after last year?s Vuelta, where the first long time trial at Zaragoza effectively killed off all the tension after Denis Menchov opened up a huge advantage on his theoretical rivals.

At Ciudad Real, the terrain was almost equally dull – featureless empty semi-desert, as is so often the case in Spain, with the course running on broad, technically unchallenging highways – but at least no one rider panned the rest of the field.

This time round, Leipheimer is now just two seconds ahead of Cofidis? Sylvain Chavanel in the overall classification – the French national time trial champion who rode superbly well to finish just 12 seconds behind Leipheimer on the stage, in second place.

Third overall is Valverde, at 30 seconds, with Contador at 47 seconds, and Sastre at 1-26. Even out-and-out climbers like Igor Anton (Euskatel-Euskadi) are just 2-17 back. None of the main favourites, in fact, has really moved out of the frame.

Leipheimer?s ride, though strong, was by no means spectacular – and the proof is that Alejandro Valverde, of all people, came close to beating the American.

11 seconds ahead of Leipheimer at the first intermediate checkpoint after 14 kilometres, Valverde was only nine seconds back at the second checkpoint after 28 kilometres.

Considering Leipheimer was bronze medallist in the Olympic time trial in Beijing, and Valverde was hardly at home on this kind of course, that was an impressive performance.

The Spaniard ran out of gas in the final third of the course, finally failing even to overtake his two minute man, Erik Zabel (Milram). But even if he slid back to fifth on the stage, Valverde?s ride keeps him very much in contention overall.

The last third of the course was not just where Valverde began to fade. It was also where Leipheimer moved from also-ran into stage winner.

Leipheimer was 42 seconds down on the fastest split – clocked by Manuel Quinziato of Liquigas – after 28 kilometres. But, come the finish, the 34-year-old had roared back into contention and finished 33 seconds ahead of the Italian.

Third in the 2001 Vuelta and already the winner this year of the Tour of California and the Dauphine prologue, it remains to be seen what effect Leipheimer?s first ever lead in a major Tour has on Astana’s strategy in the mountain stages to come.

The last time the American was in a situation like this was back in 2001, when he ousted US Postal team-mate and local favourite Roberto Heras from the final podium in Madrid. This did not go down too well, logically enough, with the Spaniard.

But whether it ends up being Contador or the American who’s in charge at the Kazakth squad, the time trial would suggest that Valverde, Sastre and Anton should be in a position give the Astana duo a real run for their money in the Pyrenees.

TOUR OF SPAIN 2008: STAGE FIVE RESULTS

Ciudad Real-Ciudad Real (ITT)

1. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana 42.5km in 50min 57secs


2. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis at 12secs

3. Manuel Quinziato (Ita) Liquigas at 33secs

4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 49secs

5. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 59secs

6. Jurgen Van Goolen (Bel) CSC-Saxo Bank at 1min 6secs

7. Michael Blaudzun (Den) CSC-Saxo Bank at 1min 7secs

8. Martin Velits (Svk) Milram at 1min 15secs

9. Dominique Cornu (Bel) Silence-Lotto at 1min 19secs

10. Sebastian Lang (Ger) Gerolsteiner at same time.

British

85. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 4min 1sec

OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE FIVE

1. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana


2. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis at 2secs

3. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 30secs

4. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step at 32secs

5. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 47secs

6. Jurgen Van Goolen (Bel) CSC-Saxo Bank at 1min 26secs

7. Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC-Saxo Bank at 1min 27secs

8. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas at 1min 38secs

9. Dominique Cornu (Bel) Silence-Lotto at 1min 48secs

10. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa) Rabobank at 1min 51secs

British

137. Jeremy Hunt (GB) Credit Agricole at 20min 14secs

Tour of Spain 2008Carlos Sastre

Tour of Spain 2008Alberto Contador

Tour of Spain 2008Sylvain Chavanel

Tour of Spain 2008New race leader and stage winner Levi Leipheimer

Photos by Graham Watson

TOUR OF SPAIN 2008

STAGE REPORTS

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 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 five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one