Spanish rider Alberto Contador is well-positioned to win his third major Tour within 14 months when the Tour of Spain resumes following Friday's rest day.
Contador's hopes were considerably increased after his compatriot Alejandro Valverde dropped out of the top ten on Thursday.
Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre appears to be the only rider who can prevent the 25-year-old winner of the 2007 Tour de France and 2008 Giro d'Italia from becoming the first since Frenchman Bernard Hinault to win all three major Tours.
"I haven't seen anything extraordinary considering that everyone says he's (Contador) the strongest rider in the race. He's been collecting seconds here and there like a little ant," Sastre told Spanish sports daily AS. "I'm like a hunter, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. I don't make stupid moves or get nervous. But I am attentive and if the opportunity arrives, I will take it. Just like I did in the Tour," he added.
Contador headed into the rest day in third place in the overall standings after a rainy 186.4-kilometre 12th stage from Burgos to Suances, 29 seconds behind the leader, Spain's Egoi Martinez of Euskaltel Euskadi.
US rider Levi Leipheimer, who races for Contador's Astana team, is in second place, 11 seconds behind the leader while Sastre of CSC-Saxo Bank is in fourth at one minute and 38 seconds behind.
Valverde, who had been a favourite to win the Vuelta along with Contador and Sastre, dropped out of contention, falling from fourth to 11th place.
He did not follow the rapid pace on the descent of a mountain pass around 60 kilometres from the finish line after he dropped back to pick up rain gear from his team's car and never caught up.
"Its my fault, I lost too much time in general and now it is almost impossible to catch up," the Caisse d'Epargne rider said.
Saturday's stage is a grueling 209-kilometre ride between San Vicente de la Barquera and a mountain called L'Angliru on the northern coastal Asturias region that includes three other first category climbs.
It will be followed by another mountain day on Sunday with a 158.4-kilometre ride between Oviedo and the Fuentes de Invierno Ski Resort that includes three third category climbs right at the start.
There are nine stages left in the 3,133-kilometre Vuelta which finishes in Madrid on September 21. Last year's champion, Russia's Denis Menchov, is not participating.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008