Oscar Freire, riding for Dutch team Rabobank, won the second stage of the Tour of Spain on Sunday to take the overall lead after a 149km run from Allariz to Santiago de Compostela.
Freire, who afterwards spoke out about the doping crisis assailing the sport and insisted the authorities had to take a tougher line, came through in a sprint finish in 3hr 31min 02sec, avoiding a pile-up two kilometres out, to take the leadership from Lampre rider Daniele Bennati of Italy.
Bennati was among those involved in the pile-up and he was unable to keep up with Freire in the final sprint.
"I had a few stomach problems yesterday but today was fine," said Freire, delighted to have claimed, for now, the golden jersey for the first time while achieving the fourth Vuelta stage win of his career as well as his seventh success of the season.
"The last five races I ran I was second four times and in sport that doesn't count. Now I was first!"
Freire, 31, immediately turned his focus to the doping crisis in the sport which has prevented so many top names from competing in the event this year.
The entire podium from the 2006 edition is absent due to proven, or suspected involvement in cheating with doping, including reigning champion Alexandre Vinokourov, sacked by his Astana team following a positive test for blood doping during the Tour de France. Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, runner-up last year, has also been forced to stay at home over ongoing suspicions of a link with the Spanish doping affair dubbed 'Operación Puerto', as has Andriy Kashechkin of Astana.
"The International Cycling Union is taking advantage of the riders and not looking out enough for the sport," charged Freire, also hitting out at the media for its coverage. "Today, cycling is not in the hands of the cyclists but in the hands of the teams."
Freire, three times a road race world champion, held off Paolo Bettini of Italy and Leonardo Duque of Colombia in the dash for the line ahead of Germany's Erik Zabel and Italy's Davide Rebellin. Freire now leads overall with Zabel and Duque as well as Clerc and Petacchi in hot pursuit on the same overall time.
Monday sees a 153km ride from Viveiro to Luarca in the picturesque northern region of Asturias which looks set to favour the sprinters once more.