QuickStep's reigning world champion, Paolo Bettini of Italy, claimed his second victory from this year's Tour of Spain by winning Stage 12 into Suances Thursday.
Spaniard Egoi Martinez of Euskaltel retained the race leader's gold jersey after the 186.4 km race between Burgos and here which saw title contender Alejandro Valverde lose time in the overall standings.
Valverde started the day in fourth overall at a minute behind Martinez but dropped out of the top ten to 11th at 4:19 adrift. In the end, it left Spain's former Tour de France and reigning Tour of Italy champion Alberto Contador with a great chance of winning his third major Tour within 14 months.
Bettini had been part of a small leading group who were all jostling for position on the hilly finish to the line, but the Italian punched ahead in the closing 150 metres to beat compatriot Davide Rebellin of Gerolsteiner. It was Bettini's second win of the race after his victory on Stage six and confirms his status as one of the big contenders for the world road race championships' rainbow jersey later this month.
The big news of the day concerned Valverde, however.
The Spanish ace was left trailing a group containing all his rivals after failing to follow the rapid pace on the descent of a mountain pass around 60km from the finish line.
Valverde was left playing catch-up, and had no teammates to help him as he fought in appalling weather conditions to close the gap to Contador, Martinez and Carlos Sastre.
Eventually the 28-year-old came over the finish line 3:23 behind Bettini and all his main rivals for the gold jersey. Although Martinez still has the lead, the Spaniard is expected to lose it once the gold jersey stakes increase in the mountains this weekend.
Contador is now in third place overall behind Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer, with Valverde around four minutes in his wake.
For a complete report with results and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008