The Tour of Spain took a new and almost completely unexpected twist on stage eight?s crucial long time trial, as Belgian Stijn Devolder (Discovery) powered into the race lead and the local riders suffered one of their worst collective defeats in the Vuelta in recent years.

It may be a cliche, but on this occasion, the results after a 52 kilometre time trial run off almost entirely on a pancake-flat motorway through a desert -are the Tour of Spain organisers trying to drive away the public completely? – really did speak for themselves.

That a heftily build rider like German national time trial champion Bert Grabsch (T-Mobile), should succeed in taking such an un-technical, exposed stage by 34 seconds over riders Lazlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole) and 48 over Devolder is pretty much to be expected. After all, was the power riders ultimate course – Paris-Roubaix for time triallists, but without the cobbles, the rain, or the public.

Whilst Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas) finished a strong fifth, just one Spaniard – fading veteran Santos Gonzalez (Karpin-Galicia) – managed to sneak into the top ten of the stage, in tenth place.

For the local stars, though, the stage was nothing short of disastrous. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was the best placed. He finished 19th, 3-34 back (and just two seconds ahead of Tom Boonen!).

But Carlos Sastre (CSC) lost over four minutes, Oscar Pereiro (Caisse D’Epargne), suffering from severe gastroenteritis, lost five and Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval), over six. The race leader Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse D?Epargne), widely expected to crack completely, finished a respectable 18th on the stage, and slid to third on gc.

Overall, just two Spaniards – Carlos Sastre (CSC) in seventh, 3-15 and Classics specialist (!) Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) in eighth, 3-41 back – now remain inside the top ten. For the first time in over a decade (since 1996, when foreign riders took all top three places in Madrid), in fact, the Spanish are completely on the defensive in their home race.

Small wonder that Devolder was looking so pleased as he received the gold jersey from Miguel Indurain. The Discovery rider is the first Belgian to hold the lead in the Tour of Spain since sprinter Benny Van Brabant, a winner of stages in the Dauphine and Vuelta, was the race’s fleeting leader (for 24 hours) way back in 1989 (Flemish cycling journalsts are probably rushing to find out Van Brabant?s opinion on his successor in Spain even now). The last Belgian to win it overall was Freddy Maertens back in 1977.

?I?m feeling super-confident,? the 27-year-old rider Devolder, 11th in last year?s race, said.

?For now my main rival will be [Rabobank rider] Denis Menchov? – the Tour of Spain winner in 2005 is a mere 30 seconds back. ?If he get through the two Pyrenean stages, in fact, there?s a chance I?ll be in gold in Madrid.?

As little as ten days ago, the Belgian?s repeated claims that he would be going for the Vuelta overall had been viewed by the local media as a slightly bizarre anecdote. Now, however, the Discovery Channel rider is being taken a whole lot more seriously.

Tour of Spain stage eight Cariñena – Zaragoza 52.2km
1 Bert Grabsch (Germany) T-Mobile 57-05
2 Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun) Credit Agricole at 34sec
3 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery Channel at 48sec
4 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 1-18
5 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 1-37
6 Stefan Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner at 1-52
7 Jason McCartney (USA) Discovery Channel at 1-55
8 Joost Posthuma (Hol) Rabobank at 2-01
9 Dimitri Champion (Fra) Bouygues at 2-15
10 Santos Gonzalez (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 2-18

Tour of Spain overall after eight stages
1 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery Channel 29-25-55
2 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 30sec
3 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne at 1-28
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 1-54
5 Maxime Monfort (Bel) Cofidis at 2-12
6 Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) at 3-00
7 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at 3-15
8 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 3-41
9 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne at 3-44
10 Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita) Liquigas at 4-03
143 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 43-35

TOUR OF SPAIN 2007: STAGE REPORTS
Stage seven: Zabel surprise winner
Stage six: Freire outguns Petacchi for stage hat-trick
Stage five: Freire takes second bunch sprint victory
Stage four: Efimkin upstages favourites in Vuelta
Stage three: Bettini bounces back with Vuelta stage win
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

RELATED LINKS
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.