Outsprinting 10 other breakaway companions to the line in Sabiñánigo, the talented young Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet added to his fine 2008 palmares with the first Grand Tour stage victory of his career.
The Silence Lotto rider got away in the group after approximately 53 kilometres of racing and, 147-odd clicks later, had little problem in outsprinting Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) plus the other six riders.
Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) crossed the line in 10th place, one ahead of yesterday's victor David Moncoutie (Cofidis), but reaped the benefits of the driving he did in the break. Together with the time bonuses for placing first and second in intermediate sprints, he amassed enough time to take over the leader's gold jersey.
The Basque rider ended the day 11 seconds ahead of Levi Leipheimer (Astana) who, for the second time in the race, conceded the maillot oro one day after taking it. He and team-mate Alberto Contador remain the best-placed of the general classification contenders, and will be able to save their team-mates for later in the race.
"For a young rider like me to win a stage in the Vuelta, that is definitely the highlight of my career," said Van Avermaet. "When we had six minutes over the top of the final climb I believed we could stay away, but I wasn't sure about winning. There were strong guys like Cunego, Rebellin and Nocentini in the group."
Martinez was of course another one of the strong guys, but he used up his fuel in building the best possible lead. The maillot oro was a reward for his efforts, and he plans to enjoy his time in the spotlight. "When I arrived at the finish I was thinking about the finish in Prato Nevoso, where I finished second behind Gerrans," he stated, referring to this year's Tour de France. "During the stage I knew I could take the jersey, so I rode harder.
"I also have to thank my team-mate Alan Pérez, who could have gone for the stage win himself," he added. "But knowing we could take the overall lead, he rode for me."
Martinez suggested afterwards that Astana allowed him to grab the race lead. "I spent one year at Discovery Channel and I have to thank Johan Bruyneel for letting me take the jersey," he said. "I won't win the Vuelta, Contador is the strongest rider out there."
Leipheimer stated that the day was about controlling energy output, and keeping the bigger picture in mind. There's over a week and a half of racing left and the Astana domestiques need to be strong later in the Vuelta.
"The stage was hard, especially the beginning," he said. "A lot of riders were attacking us. They probably thought there is a chance we would give away the jersey again, because it is a lot of work for the team.
"We wanted to let six to eight riders get away, but there were always groups of 10 to 12," he added. "We didn't really have a choice. There's still two weeks to go. We have the number one and two favourites and we have to conserve our energy."
Having dual captaincy is something which benefits the team at this stage, as it gives Astana two options for the overall, as well as forcing its rivals to monitor both. He sees this continuing. "There is no reason why the two of us [Contador and Leipheimer] can't continue to do our own races," he stated.
Getting away from the GC contenders
As a medium mountain stage - and coming after two tough days - it was always likely that a break would succeed. The day got off to a tough start, both from the rapid pace and the second-category Alto del Túnel de Vielha. Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff), Maarten Tjallingii (Silence-Lotto), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas), and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) went clear close to the top, and crossed the summit in that order.
They were caught on the descent, but another group pushed ahead on the second category Col d'Espina. Moncoutie, Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel), Alberto Losado (Caisse d'Epargne), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R), Matteo Tosatto (Quick Step), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Alan Perez (Euskaltel), Patrice Halgland (Credit Agricole), Vasili Kiryienka (Tinkoff) and Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux) slipped away but were reeled in after the summit. Moncoutie had taken the prime at the top and started gathering the points that would see him end the day in the best climber's jersey.
The pace saw the peloton split briefly into three and, with the pressure on, the day's big break slipped clear. Present were Cunego, Van Avermaet, Perez, Flecha, Rebellin, Moncoutie, Nocentini, Martinez, Andrea Tonti (Quick Step), Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne), Patrice Halgland (Credit Agricole) and Christophe Kern (Credit Agricole).
Van Avermaet took the bonus sprint ahead of Martinez and Moncoutie, while later on the latter took top points on the category three Puerto de La Foradada ascent and the first category Puerto de Serrablo, which topped out 134 kilometres after the start. This would see him end the day with a total of 78, well ahead of the 51 held by previous KOM leader Alessandro Ballan (Lampre).
"I had good legs. I wanted to get into the break for the mountain points," he said afterwards.
Martinez was also doing what was needed to make sure of another jersey, beating Van Avermaet to take the second intermediate sprint in Sabiñánigo, 16 kilometres from the finish. With eleven kilometres remaining the break had seven minutes 20 seconds lead, and it finished six minutes 42 seconds up at the line.
General classification contender Carlos Sastre said that it was a complicated day in the saddle. "Today's stage was very fast and very difficult right from the start," he stated on www.carlossastre.com. "There was a lot of attacks until the breakaway got established, followed by a high-speed pace. Before setting out it seemed like a relatively straightforward stage, with a breakaway and nothing much else...and in the end a lot did happen.
"The team had to work fairly hard today, especially my team-mates Iñigo Cuesta and Michael Blaudzun, in their efforts to help out Juan José Haedo," he said. "Haedo had a bad time of it today and we had to help him to get through the stage, so we had to work a little harder in that respect.
"In the final part, we mainly tried to ensure that the breakaway didn't get too far ahead of us and that we were all close enough to stop too many riders getting into the general classification."
Stage 10 - September 9: Sabiñánigo - Zaragoza, 151.3km
The race continues tomorrow with a flatter stage, a 151.3 kilometre leg from Sabiñánigo to Zaragoza. The second category Puerto de Monrepós appears early on and should enable another breakaway to get clear.
The general classification riders have a respite before the next mountains, but Sastre suggested that echelons could enliven these flatter days.
"We've made it through the Pyrenees stages, which have been hard and have affected the pack," he said. "We are now gradually moving over to the north of Spain, towards Suances via Zaragoza and Burgos - where the wind is bound to make an appearance".
That means things could change yet again, and that it's not just the mountains and time trial that could affect the outcome of this race.