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Danilo Di Luca finally replicated the form that carried him to the inaugural ProTour title last year when he outpaced Discovery Channel's emerging talent Janez Brajkovic to win the first of the Vuelta's summit finishes at the Covatilla ski station today. The victory also pushed the Italian to the top of the leaderboard, as the Spanish challenge fell away on the upper slopes of the mountain.
The final 18km ascent was first reached by a group of 10 riders who went clear after 42km. Euskaltel's I¤igo Landaluze led for the first three kilometres of the Covatilla, but was soon swallowed up by the remains of the lead group and, soon afterwards, the main peloton. The pace was soon taken up by Astana's Sergio Paulinho, with Caisse d'Epargne workhorse David Arroyo close at hand at the climb's midway point.
The main contenders were still closing in fast. With 6.5m remaining Saunier Duval's Jos Gomez Marchante jumped clear from this group, where CSC's I¤igo Cuesta was setting the pace for Carlos Sastre. It took the curly-haired Spaniard just a couple of kilometres to catch and drop first Arroyo and then Paulinho. Meanwhile, an acceleration by Alejandro Valverde saw the chase group thinned to just a few members, including Sastre, Di Luca, Brajkovic, his Discovery Channel team-mate Tom Danielson, Astana's Andrei Kashechkin and Euskaltel's Samuel Sanchez.
The next key move came with 3km left from Di Luca. The Italian attacked and only Brajkovic was able to follow. The pair were soon up to Gomez Marchante, who tried to get away on his own again with 2km left, but was once again tracked down by Di Luca. The Italian came here looking for a stage win, and was not to be denied, a final acceleration carrying him and Brajkovic clear of Gomez Marchante.
One more acceleration at the line finally saw Di Luca get the better of Brajkovic, although the Slovenian may well emerge as the more likely contender for the overall title. Di Luca immediately dismissed his long-term hopes, saying: "I came to the Vuelta with one clear objective: to win a stage. I've achieved that, but I can't see myself fighting for the overall title because I don't think I've done the preparation needed to win a three-week tour."
Stage 5, Plasencia-Alto de Covatilla
1 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 178km in 5.02.25
2 Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Discovery Channel
3 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana 0.07
4 Jos Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval 0.15
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 0.22
6 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
7 Ruggero Marzoli (Ita) Lampre 0.36
8 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 0.39
9 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel
10 Bernhard Kohl (Aut) T-Mobile 0.42
11 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel
17 Iban Mayo (Spa) Euskaltel 1.44
21 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 2.13
25 David Millar (GB) Saunier Duval 2.52
1 Danilo Di Luca (Ita) Liquigas 18.37.56
2 Brajkovic 0.04
3 Kashechkin 0.18
4 Sastre 0.29
5 Gomez Marchante 0.35
6 Valverde 0.36
7 Beltran 0.55
8 Danielson 0.58
9 Kohl 1.00
10 Sanchez 1.04
16 Mayo 2.09
19 Vinokourov 2.32
23 Millar 3.12
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