Vinokourov and Danielson combine to unseat Valverde

Change in race leadership as American wins the stage

Triumph from adversity. For both Alexandre Vinokourov and Tom Danielson, today's stage of the Vuelta a España brought happiness after some strong disappointments this summer. Vinokourov was aiming to win this year's Tour de France but repercussions from the Operación Puerto investigation saw several riders excluded on the eve of the race. As a consequence the Astana team were left without the required numbers and had to withdraw from the Tour.

As for Danielson, he came to the race hoping to fight it out for the final victory or, at least, a podium placing, but suffered inexplicably in the early mountains and dropped down the general classification. For both of them, today brought pleasure after pain; Vino bounced back to seize the maillot oro of race leadership in a thrilling finish, while Danielson's long-distance break saw him salvage his Vuelta and win the stage.

"This is the first time I have worn a leader's jersey in a Grand Tour," said a quietly satisfied Vinokourov, who had a stormer of a race and ended the day nine seconds clear overall of a deposed Alejandro Valverde. "There is a special emotion because of that, but it will be even stronger if I reach Madrid in the gold jersey."

The stage was marked by two first category climbs and some undulating terrain in between the two peaks, but was on paper less difficult than yesterday's demanding leg to Calar Alto. Yet it proved far more decisive in terms of the overall classification. Sparring between Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne team and Vinokourov's Astana squad was followed by attacks from other riders, and a group of six then went clear on the first of these two ascents.

Danielson, Sergio Paulinho (Astana), Lars Bak (Team CSC), Stéphane Goubert (AG2R), Dmitriy Fofonov (Credit Agricole), and Eric Leblacher (Française des Jeux) opened up a maximum lead of 4'30, and then the American surged clear alone on the second climb, which crested 20 kilometres from the end. Vinokourov followed an earlier attack by Kashechkin and managed to shake off Valverde, and while the race leader was able to rejoin on the descent, a persistent – and impressive – Vino jumped clear again, bridged up to Danielson, and pulled out a substantial 1'39 gap by the finish. That plus the time bonus was enough to see him move into the overall lead, with Valverde dropping to second and Sastre remaining third.

"My confidence wasn't badly affected by not being able to get a gap yesterday," the Kazakhstani said, when asked if he had been disheartened by stage 16. "It was a special day after the rest day and Valverde was very strong. But today is a different day, the course was one to attack on and it suited my specialities. I knew that I could make a difference and I gave my all until the end.

"I had good legs but I was a little surprised in the end that I could make up so much time in the final fifteen kilometres. Today I wish to thank my team, who worked very well. All of the them did a lot of work, especially Kashechkin who made many attacks to break up the rhythm. My motivation is very good now, my team is working strongly and I will do what I can to win."

Vinokourov was asked if it was his strength or the tactics of the race which made the difference. "I think the strategy of the race and the team was important, but once I got the gap it was about being strong," he answered. "I was able to work with Kash and Marchante when I was clear. Valverde got back but I had the strength to be able to get away on my own again. I still only have a small lead so will see how tomorrow goes, in terms of getting more time. But even if I don't, I think I can make a decisive difference in the time trial."

Stage winner Danielson has taken some good victories as a professional, winning races such as the Tour de Georgia and Tour de Langkawi. However he said that today's success was something more. "First of all, this race has the title of a Grand Tour so that obviously makes it very special. But the biggest and most special part of today is that in one race I have been able to recover from the lowest I have been in my cycling career and, with the help of my wife and my team, been able to come back, fight back and deliver at the finish."

Prior to the start he told Cyclingnews that after trying unsuccessfully yesterday, he didn't think that he would be able to get clear in a long-range breakaway. Yet that is what happened today.

"This whole race has been a surprise for me," he said, when asked about this. "It has been a surprise in the beginning, why I was so bad, then it was a surprise when I couldn't go in the breakaway. Basically the best way to describe today was a slugfest. No-one let anyone go anywhere because it was just one punch from Astana, another punch from Caisse d'Epargne. I was just in the middle of it, trying to take advantage of every situation and obviously it was a really, really hard stage. It reminded me a lot of last year when Roberto [Heras] attacked on the second last climb before the finish and dropped Menchov on the descent. Then he had his team-mates wait for him and drive it from there.

"You could see that something like that was happening with Astana. To be honest with you, my priority was to work for Egoi [Martinez] in the beginning to make sure he won the KOM. So I bridged across to his breakaway and then pulled for him for three kilometres all the way to the top. He won the KOM which was icing on the cake and then, as you could see, Kashechkin and Astana just went crazy and I got in the middle of all that.

"A breakaway went then. Egoi is very good at the breakaway and he said ‘Tom, Tom, this is your opportunity.' I took it. I didn't care if it was going to get caught…I have been very, very frustrated in this race and have had to be mentally strong to come back from all the disappointments that I have had from the beginning. Every pull that I took was brushing the dirt off my shoulder, and the finish line was where I brushed it all off. It was a great experience."

Once they had joined up, Vinokourov and Danielson chose to work together, with the latter then taking the stage uncontested. Although a time bonus was up for grabs, it appeared that Vino judged that Danielson's collaboration was worth more in terms of potential gain than if he had had to set the pace alone. The Discovery Channel rider was asked at the press conference if a deal had been done.

"For a while he was chasing me and not gaining much ground," he answered. "I was basically going the same speed. My directeurs thought it might be better if we waited a little bit, then we worked together for the advantage at the end.

"Obviously he is a great champion and he didn't sprint me for the win. I pulled a lot and he pulled a lot, too. We didn't exactly talk about the situation but, like I said, he is a great champion."

Previous race leader Valverde and third placed Carlos Sastre arrived in a group together at the finish, losing 1'39. The maillot oro had to do much of the chasing but couldn't make any impression on the two up front, conceding a lot of time.

He was clearly disappointed at the end, although he was still able to smile and wave to his fans when being presented with the white jersey as the leader of the combined classification. "For sure right now I feel a little bit tired after the effort that I have just made," he said. "We will see how I recover this night. Tomorrow it will be necessary to start fighting again and we do not have any intention of throwing in the towel. All my team-mates did their best to help me and I know that tomorrow all of them will be present to start fighting again.

"We knew that the stage of today would be a hard and difficult one. In the final part of the climb of the Monachil, I accelerated but the same time I caught the group with the Kazakh riders, Vinokourov saw me and he attacked again immediately. It was consequently very difficult to join him once more, and also because nobody collaborated.

"I thought that Marchante was going to ride with me but by the time he decided to do it, it was very little and too late. Now Vinokourov, who could count on Danielson's collaboration, is the leader of the race. He is closest to the final victory. So tomorrow, it will be necessary to attack to recover some time."

With a time trial yet to come, the advantage appears to have swung – for now – in Vinokourov's favour. If he can hold of the inevitable counter attack by his chief rival tomorrow, then he will be confident heading into the final time trial. While he only gained eight seconds on Valverde in the last race against the clock in Cuenca, on past form it is difficult to envisage the Spaniard actually turning the tables and beating Vino. Of course, anything is possible in a three week stage race but, for now, Vinokourov has the upper hand.

He was asked at the post-race press conference if his non-participation in the Tour fuelled his motivation here. "It is true that I could not do the Tour de France this year," he answered "It is a big pity for me. I really like doing three week Tours, and I have shown I can do well in them. But winning the Vuelta would be something special. Also, my 33rd birthday is on Saturday…if I can do it, it would be a good present to arrive in Madrid with the jersey."

How it unfolded

The 17th stage finished in Granada, a well known city because of its famous Alhambra. The Alhambra is an Arab big building built before the XIII century at the top of a hill in the heart of Granada. It was thought to be for military purposes, but it became a royal Arab residence. Granada is one of the three most visited cities in Spain and among the most visited in the world due to this marvelous architectural work.

The stage began with a fast tempo. There were many attacks from km 0. Even the GC leader Alejandro Valverde and the favourites’ group were part of an early breakaway (km 32) on the Alto de Albondón. That attack didn't succeed and further up the climb, 13 riders made a break: Tom Danielson (Discovery), Egoi Martinez (Discovery), Sergio Paulinho (Astana), David Arroyo (Illes Balears), Serguei Yakovlev (Astana), Pietro Caucchioli (Credit Agricole), Lars Bak (CSC), Stephane Goubert (AG2R), Dimitriy Fofonov (Credit Agricole), Eric Leblacher (Française des Jeux), David Millar (Saunier Duval), Kurt Arvesen (CSC) and Scott Davis (T-Mobile). Later on, Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) joined the lead group. The stage was already exploding on the first climb.

Martinez took the points at the summit ahead of Caucchioli, which brought him level with the Italian in the mountains classification and gave him the jersey. On the descent, Valverde, together with Carlos Sastre (CSC), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and others joined the lead group and formed a small bunch. But in front, Bak, Paulinho, Danielson, Leblacher, Goubert and Fofonov continued with their escape and led the race by just over a minute at km 60.

This six rider breakaway was the good one, as the Valverde group was consolidating behind. The leaders were able to keep distance over the 40 rider bunch, where Caisse d'Epargne had five riders protecting the leader. At the first intermediate sprint in Durcal (km 100), Danielson crossed first with Sergio Paulinho and Eric Leblacher on his wheel. Later on, at the second intermediate sprint in Monachil (km 130.2), Leblacher got the maximum bonus seconds with Goubert in second place and Danielson in third.

On the ascent of the Alto de Monachil (summit at km 139.4), all hell broke loose. With a good two minutes on the chasers, Danielson quickly dropped his breakaway companions while Kashechkin (Astana) and Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) attacked the Valverde group, which quickly reduced in size to a handful of riders. Kashechkin and Marchante put 20 seconds into the gold jersey, allowing Vinokourov a free ride as Valverde and Sastre had to chase. Then, with two kilometres to the summit, Vino put in a powerful attack to leave Valverde and Sastre in the dust. He crossed the gap incredibly fast, and the trio caught Paulinho and Goubert near the top, but they didn't last long.

Danielson still had a good 45 seconds over the top of the Monachil but now he had two Astana riders and Marchante chasing him. Valverde hadn't given up, and accelerated to close the gap to Vino and co. while hitting 80 km/h on the descent. But the Astana rider was sure of his strength strengths and was able to get a new small gap at 18 km to go, which just kept increasing as Valverde had no help from Kashechkin and Marchante. With 9 km to go, Vino was descending like a demon, 13 seconds behind Danielson. Valverde was 45 seconds behind the American and Sastre at 1’06. Then, Vinokourov caught Danielson with 5 km to the finish and things started to look worse for Valverde.

The American and the Kazakhstani cooperated with each other in the final kilometres to maximise the advantage over Valverde, whose trio was caught by Sastre, Sanchez, Paulinho, Goubert, Piepoli and Perez. Sanchez wasted no time and attacked for third position, holding off the rest and improving his GC position to eighth.

But up front, it was all Vinokourov and Danielson, who finished with a 1'39 advantage over Valverde - enough to give Vinokourov the gold jersey. Danielson was rewarded for his efforts with a fine stage win, with Sanchez third at 1'10. The leader's name is now Alexandre, and not Alejandro.

Stage 18 – September 14: Granada-Sierra de la Pandera, 153.1 km

This is a mountainous stage with two hard climbs at the end. The first climb is Alto de las Encebras (Cat. 3 – 1,130 m. above sea level – km 45.6). The other two mountains are very near the end: Alto de los Villares (Cat. 2 – 1,180 m. – km 140.4) and Sierra de la Pandera (Cat. special – 1,840 m. – km 153.1 – finish line). This should be the key stage in this Vuelta a España. Valverde and Sastre will play their probable last cards in order to reduce the distance to Vinokourov, who will do his utmost to attack.

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