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Alejandro Valverde eased himself clear of the chasing pack in Tuesday's 16th stage of the Vuelta, finishing second behind Euskaltel's Igor Anton at the Calar Alto summit finish. Valverde closely marked Alexandre Vinokourov on the final climb, and beat the Kazakh in the sprint for second place 23 seconds after Anton had given his team their second stage win of the race.
The bonus seconds Valverde picked up on the line ensured that he gained time on all his direct rivals for the gold jersey. Although neither he nor Vinokourov could shake the other, the Spaniard did gain considerable time on Vino's Astana team-mate Andrei Kashechkin, who lost more than a minute at the summit and dropped from second place to fourth, leaving Vino and Carlos Sastre tied for second place 1-42 down on the leader.
"Vinokourov did what he had promised by attacking me, and he did it more than once, but I felt very good, which enabled me to answer his attacks without difficulty, even though they were very aggressive," said Valverde. "Today, like every day, I was able to rely on the phenomenal work carried out by my team-mates and I wish to take the opportunity to congratulate them once more.
"I did not suffer at all from the drop in temperature nor from the rain, nor because of the possible consequences of a rest day. Today's performance is a very important step ahead, especially from a psychological point of view because of the three mountain stages remaining today's was the one I considered the hardest. Taking into account how I coped today, it goes without saying that I will approach the following ones with even more confidence. As for my rivals, they have a little less time to try to outdistance me, but I do not doubt that they will continue to attack."
Vinokourov admitted Valverde had been "very strong", but was still bullish about his own chances. "Today I had good legs, but it was impossible to drop Valverde," the Kazakh explained. "The Vuelta is not finished, there are still two mountain stages and we will see what happens tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. There is plenty of terrain to attack and to gain an advantage."
Stage 16, Almeria-Calar Alto
1 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 145km in 4.29.42
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0.23
3 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana
4 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 0.28
6 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel 0.30
7 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel 0.42
8 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 1.10
9 Jos Antonio Redondo (Spa) Astana 1.13
10 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery Channel 1.15
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears 63.18.16
2 Vinokourov 1.42
4 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana 2.05
5 Jos Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval 4.23
6 Beltran 5.34
7 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 5.56
8 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d'Epargne 6.29
9 Sanchez 7.53
10 Danielson 8.05
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