Alejandro Valverde took another major step towards clinch the first major Tour of his career when he successfully defended his lead in the toughest mountain stage of the final week. The day?s win went to young Euskaltel-Euskadi climber Igor Anton, but the big news was that Valverde - second two dozen seconds behind - was able to fend off his most dangerous gc rival, Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana).

On a rainsoaked day when eight riders failed to start - amongst them Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) and Paris-Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara (CSC) - and a further six quit or missed the time cut, the three major mountain climbs on stage 16 culminating in a second ascent of the 20 kilometre colossus Calar Alto, shattered the field.

The last of 10 riders to survive from the early break, Astana?s Jose Antonio Redondo, was struggling but still ahead as first Valverde?s Caisse D?Epargne-Iles Balears and then Carlos Sastre?s CSC squad turned on the power in the main group on the second and final ascent of Calar. The relentless accelerations by two of the strongest Vuelta teams on a steadily rising climb succeeded in shredding the group to half its original size half-way up and it looked as if Redondo?s attack would soon be history.

First of the big names to crack when Sastre made a move in person was Vinokourov?s team-mate Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), although Valverde, Vino? and Euskaltel-Euskadi?s Samuel Sanchez were able to stay with the CSC leader. With Kashechkin?s second place now a lost cause, more attacks came from Vinokourov, briefly allowing the Kazakh and Valverde to go clear. But Vino? then refused to work with Valverde and sink Sastre for good, so the tiny group of some half a dozen leaders reformed.

One of the last to make it into the favourites group, Anton then bridged across to a desperately flailing Redondo, and was caught again when Vinokourov launched his umpteenth attack. But the Basque then went finally and definitively clear three kilometres from the line for the first victory of his career. 23 seconds behind the delighted Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, Valverde outsprinted Vinokourov, bested by the Spaniard but who nonetheless moved up to second overall.

?I never expected I would win in such a big race so early in my career.? Anton commented. ?Now I can retire happy.? Valverde was equally satisfied, saying that he had ?made a big step in the right direction, although there are still two dangerous days in the mountains to come.?

Stage 17 of the Tour of Spain from Adra to Granada is 159 kilometres long and includes a major first category climb close to the finish.

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