In a spectacular reversal of fortunes in the Tour of Spain, Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) is the new leader when there are just four days of racing left to go.
On the 159.2 kilometre stage from Adra to Granada, Vinokourov took off from a small leading group on a long descent from the race?s final first category climb of the Alto de Monachil.
The Astana leader then bridged across to American Tom Danielson three kilometres from the line, and after a brief period of collaboration, the two reached the finish together.
Vinokourov gifted Danielson (Discovery Channel) the stage, well aware that he was en route to taking his first lead ever in a major Tour. Valverde finally finished eighth, 1-39 down and out of the maillot de oro by nine seconds. CSC?s Carlos Sastre, the 2006 Vuelta?s Mr. Consistency, remains in third place overall, 1-51 back.
?I was surprised I could take so much time on Valverde.? Vinokourov said afterwards. ?But team-work and my aggressive racing on the descent paid off well.?
Astana rode a tactical masterpiece on stage 17, with Vino?s team-mate Andrey Kashechkin already on the attack on the first major climb of the day, the Alto de Abondon.
Having softened up the opposition with his move, 100 kilometres further on Kashechkin charged off again on the Alto de Monachil, bridging across to team-mate Sergio Paulinho, one of six riders to form an early break.
The two Astana riders then waited for Vinokourov when he tore off the front three kilometres from the summit of Monachil, whilst Valverde, completely isolated and initially unable to follow the Kazakh, in turn dropped Sastre.
Valverde then made a huge effort on the first dangerous part of the descent and briefly made contact with the Astana trio (Vinokourov, Paulinho and Kashechkin), but no sooner had he done so, than Vinokourov accelerated away.
The Spaniard – for once at a loss what to do – failed to chase to decisively. With his maillot flapping open (which also surely lost him time) Valverde looked more for collaboration than simply getting down to work and chasing. Vinokourov?s margin on the fast descent inexorably increased, and he then made contact with Danielson, who happily collaborated. By the finish, the gap between Vino and Valverde was well over 90 seconds, Discovery Channel had their second Vuelta stage, Vinokourov was in the lead and Valverde?s nine-day spell in the maillot de oro was over.
?The race is not finished.? Valverde said decisively. ?You?ll see what happens now. I?ve had a bad day, but I can attack again:? However, on Wednesday he suffered a major defeat, and time is running out.
Britain?s one rider left in the race, David Millar, crashed on the descent of the first first category climb of the day. According to radio reports he fell several metres down into a ditch when he went off the road, but did not suffer major injuries and could complete the stage. Tour de France King of the Mountains Michael Rasmussen, however, was one of four riders who did quit.
Tomorrow?s final high mountain stage of the Tour of Spain finishes with the
eight kilometre climb to La Pandera in north-east Andalusia.