Rainbow jersey Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) proved that he is on track for the World Championships with a classy stage win in the Tour of Spain on Monday.

Second and third in a stage featuring a twisting uphill finale – and just 300 metres of flat to finish off with – were two other riders likely to prove tough rivals for ?Il Grillo? in Stuttgart: Spaniard Oscar Freire (Rabobank) and Australian Allan Davis (Discovery).

Freire was blocked in – apparently unintentionally – by Bettini in the final dash from the line, but remains overall leader after the 153 kilometre stage from Viveiro westwards to Luarca. Although the Spaniard did not look at all happy at the finish and protested (unofficially), according to Bettini the two talked over what had happened and it was all settled amicably.

?When Davis started the sprint he went right, forcing me right and to slow down. So then when I accelerated again, Oscar was behind me and there wasn?t any space for him to get through.? Bettini insisted.

?In any case, I knew that this was a difficult finish -my team-mate Carlos Barredo trains around here and he told me I had to be very careful.?

For Bettini, a stage win in the Vuelta is becoming something of a tradition – he?s also won one in 2006 and in 2005. But given he had not won anything since the Tour of California this February, this time round his Spanish victory could not have been more timely.

?I?m going to continue right the way into the third week of the Vuelta, a little longer than usual, because psychologically I need to keep going for the stage wins.? he added. ?It?s not been a great year for me and in the build-up to the Worlds this September it?s important for me to try to get the victories in.?

Quick Step had already tried to split the peloton on the descent from a final third cat. climb. Together with the help of an unusually attentive Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, the Belgian Classics team, headed by Bettini and some 15 other riders opened up a gap.

But then Euskaltel?s co-leader Haimar Zubeldia crashed, badly bruising his left shoulder, the orange squad sat up and it all came back together. Zubeldia, fifth in the Tour this year, finally finished 11 minutes down.

With three kilometres to go it was by no means clear who would be winning in Luarca, as the road through the fishing village first dipped sharply down to the docks and then kicked back uphill on a narrow lane with a gradient of around seven percent.

Oscar Pereiro (Caisse D?Epargne) put in a long drive at the front of the peloton as it shattered in the tricky terrain – proving in the process his hip injury on stage two is not too serious.

Intriguingly, though, it was Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), who was prepared to take a risk in the bunch sprint itself, finishing eighth – a sign (given he is now sixth overall and will have his following car that much better placed for the Covadonga climb on Tuesday) that he means business, perhaps?

Next to have a go was Amstel winner Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) and it was only as the road flattened slightly that other Classics specialists like Bettini, Davide Rebellin (Gerolsteiner) Freire and Davis came to the fore of a 70-strong lead group.

Tuesday?s stage will see the one-day specialists take a back seat as the race tackles the single most difficult climb of the entire Vuelta – the 14 kilometre ascent to the Lakes of Covadonga. ?We won?t see who?s going to win, but we?ll certainly see who?s going to lose.? predicted CSC?s Carlos Sastre.

Tour of Spain stage three Viveiro – Luarca 153km

1 Paolo Bettini (Italy) Quick Step 4-08-42
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank
3 Allan Davis (Aus) Discovery Channel
4 Davide Rebellin (Ita) Gerolsteiner
5 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Francaise des Jeux
6 Rene Mandri (Est) Ag2R
7 Xavier Florencio (Spa) Bouygues
8 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto
9 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas
10 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Relax-Gam all st
175 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 8-16

Tour of Spain overall after three stages

1 Oscar Freire (Spain) Rabobank 11-22-54
2 Leonardo Duque (Col) Cofidis
3 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
4 Rene Mandri (Est) Ag2R
5 David Lopez (Spa) Caisse D’Epargne
6 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto
7 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas
8 Xavier Florencio (Spa) Bouygues
9 Ezequiel Mozquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia
10 Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir all st
176 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 8-16

RELATED LINKS
Stage two: Freire nets stage win and Vuelta lead
Stage one: Bennati takes race lead in bunch sprint
Tour of Spain preview, including stage and team list
Astana out of 2007 Tour of Spain
Eurosport cycling TV schedule for September
Vuelta confirms support for ASO in ProTour row
Vinokourov wins 2006 Tour of Spain overall

Official site: www.lavuelta.com.