Spanish rider Joaquin Rodriguez regained the overall lead of the Tour of Spain after Monday's mountainous 16th stage, won by his compatriot Mikel Nieve.
The Katusha rider, who finished the stage third, has a lead of 33 seconds over Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, who cracked on the final climb of the 181.4-kilometre ride from Gijon to Cotobello to slip to second place overall.
"It was important for me to regain the jersey again today. I will try to lose as little time as possible. Every second will count going into the final weekend," said Rodriguez who took the leader's red jersey for the first time on the 10th stage.
"I ended the stage dead. I don't think there has been any stage as hard as this one," added the 31-year-old, a stage winner at the Tour de France in July.
Nieve dashed away from a breakaway group on the final climb up the Alto de Cotobello and soloed to victory in four hours, 51 minutes and 59 seconds, one minute and six seconds ahead of Luxembourg's Frank Schleck of Saxo Bank.
"I can't believe it," the 26-year-old said. "I attacked from far away, we had nothing to lose, the team gave everything it could for me."
Nieve dedicated the stage win to his Euskaltel teammate Igor Anton, who crashed out of the Tour of Spain after suffering injuries in a crash inside the last 10km of the race's 14th stage on Saturday.
"He (Anton) deserves it without a doubt. He was the best rider in the Tour, he was sure to win it," said Nieve.
"We were doing a great job, working for Anton to win this Vuelta. Everything fell apart for us, but we came back to fight again."
Anton boosted his profile during the Tour of Spain by wearing the red jersey for five days and winning two stages before he was forced to bow out.
The riders will enjoy the second rest day of the 21-stage race on Tuesday. The Tour of Spain resumes Wednesday with a time trial in the town of Penafiel.
"The time I have now on Nibali gives me a little margin going into the time trial, but it's not enough to win this Vuelta," said Rodriguez.
"I know I will lose time against him there. I need to try to limit the losses and attack again Saturday."
The Tour of Spain, the third of the Grand Tours after the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, wraps up in Madrid on Sunday.
© AFP 2010
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