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The weather couldn't have been much more different to the Vuelta's last visit to the El Morredero climb above Ponferrada in 2004, but while heat and more heat replaced cold and rain the final result was the same as Alejandro Valverde claimed victory. The ProTour leader finished four seconds clear of Carlos Sastre, who led in Jos Gomez Marchante and Janez Brajkovic. Significant by his absence was overall leader Danilo Di Luca, and his elimination from overall contention saw young Slovene Brajkovic take the overall lead in what is his first major tour.
Three long-time breakaways led the race onto the final climb, but first Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), then Laszlo Bodrogi (Crdit Agricole) and finally David Loosli (Lampre) yielded as the leaders sped up the final ascent after their domestiques had whittle down a lead that reached more than 12 minutes.
After first Astana and then Caisse d'Epargne had tested the gold jersey group on the early slopes of the Morredero, the first key move came from Cofidis's Luis Perez, and Valverde for one did not react well to it. As Perez was pursued by a group containing Brajkovic and team-mate Tom Danielson, as well as Astana's Alexandre Vinokourov, Valverde's team-mates set about getting him back into contention, with Sastre and Di Luca also along for the ride.
At a dip in the midpoint of the climb, Valverde seemed to find his legs while others lost theirs, notably Danielson and Di Luca, who both fell away as the gradient rose to 10 per cent once more. The contenders reconvened, or at least most of them did, with 7km remaining and flagging Loosli now the only rider ahead of them.
The Swiss rider at the front took advantage of another step downwards to get his legs going again, and with 3km left looked like he might just hang on despite the chunks Caisse d'Epargne's Vladimir Karpets and Joaquin Rodriguez had chopped out of his lead. But as the road rose again with 3km remaining, a series of attacks soon brought the Swiss within range of the chasers.
After two attacks by Iban Mayo were chased down, Brajkovic and Vinokourov were the first to catch Loosli, who vainly tried to stay with them. Then Vino attacked hard and sped off for what seemed a certain win. Valverde, though, had paced himself just right and launched a counter in the last 500 metres to catch the Kazakh 100 metres short of the line.
With tomorrow's stage a fairly straightforward run to Lugo, battle should recommence between the favourites on Sunday's extremely tough stage to the Alto de la Cobertoria. Valverde now looks the favourite for victory, but no one really convinced on today's final climb, leaving this as yet another unpredictable Vuelta where anything could happen.
Stage 7, Leon-Alto de El Morredero
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 154km in 4.01.05
2 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 0.04
3 Jos Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval 0.06
4 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Discovery Channel 0.07
5 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel
6 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 0.12
7 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 0.16
8 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana
9 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery Channel 0.23
10 Ruggero Marzoli (Ita) Lampre 0.29
11 Iban Mayo (Spa) Euskaltel
18 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Phonak 1.10
22 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 1.58
1 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Discovery Channel 26.48.27
2 Valverde 0.05
3 Sastre 0.10
4 Gomez Marchante 0.22
5 Kashechkin 0.23
6 Beltran 0.51
7 Marzoli 1.17
8 Bernhard Kohl (Aut) T-Mobile 1.37
9 Di Luca 1.47
10 Mayo 2.27
11 Vinokourov 2.28
13 Hesjedal 3.05
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