Spanish ace Alejandro Valverde pulled on the race leader's yellow jersey in Saint-Paul-En-Jarez at the Dauphine Libere stage race after winning the third stage time-trial on Wednesday.
Valverde put his pre-Tour de France form on display for the second time this week by averaging over 41km/h for the undulating and technical 31km course in Saint-Paul-en-Jarez, that had been hit by an earlier storm.
American Levi Leipheimer of Astana finished second at 19 seconds with Australian Cadel Evans, of Silence, in third a further second back.
It is Valverde's second stage victory in the race -- a crucial warm-up for July's Tour de France -- following his win on the first stage at Privas.
On a drying course that had been lashed by rain, Valverde surged ahead of his rivals on the steeper, first part and went on to retain his advantage until the finish.
In the race's general classification, the Caisse d'Epargne team rider now has a lead of 23 seconds on Leipheimer, with Evans third overall at 37.
Valverde admitted a pre-stage look at what lay ahead had given him a boost.
"When myself and Oscar Pereiro went out to have a look in the morning we were surprised by the difficulty of the course," said Valverde, who recently put his climbing prowess to good use in winning the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic for the second time in his career.
"I saw straight away it suited me well. The first 20km were really climbing, followed by a really technical descent."
With four days in the Alps ahead -- beginning with Thursday's fourth stage over 193km from Vienne to Annemasse -- Valverde is in control, but he will be looking over his shoulder for Evans, Leipheimer, and some of the riders for whom a prestigious stage win is a priority.
So far, Valverde's yellow jersey stock is rising steadily. Evans, last year's Tour de France runner-up, will also feel relieved having come into the race anxious over tendinitis in his knee which he said cleared up last week.
Valverde added: "I've felt great since the start of the race and I think I'm really on the right path as far as preparations for the Tour are concerned. We'll be going out to defend the yellow jersey here, but it won't be easy."
Another Tour contender who had hoped to show his yellow jersey credentials here is CSC's Carlos Sastre, but the Spaniard lost nearly four minutes to his Dauphine rivals on the race against the clock.
Leipheimer will be absent from the Tour de France because his Astana team was not invited by Tour bosses, but with Valverde and Evans in the field, there should be plenty of drama.
Thursday's fourth stage features the first category one climb of the race at Saleve. The seven-kilometre ascent, at an average gradient of 9.2 percent, on a narrow road is only 17.5km from the finish line.
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008