Italian Danilo Di Luca may have had a terrible summer in France, but over the border in Spain it?s a very different story.

The pintsized Liquigas rider blasted his way to a convincing stage win at the summit of the Covatilla climb, the first mountain top finish of this year?s Vuelta, when he outsprinted little-known young Slovenian Janez Brajkovic of the Discovery Channel team.

Third, a handful of seconds behind, was Kazakh Andrey Kashechkin (Astana), whilst Carlos Sastre and Alejandro Valverde both lost around 20 seconds to the Italian.
It was not the kind of result anybody was expecting on the 18-kilometre Covatilla climb – particularly after Sastre?s CSC squad had made mincemeat of the peloton on the lower slopes of the sunbaked ascent.

One by one, the big names from this year?s Vuelta slid out the back – Oscar Pereiro (Caisse D?Epargne), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and 2005 Tour of Spain winner Denis Menchov.

So far so good for Sastre, but when Valverde then accelerated hard in the final five kilometres, the CSC rider was pushed to hold the Spaniard?s pace.

Then both Spanish favourites received an unpleasant shock, when first compatriot Jose Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) then Di Luca and Brajkovic, a former U-23 World Time Trial Champion with a string of top five places in week-long stage races this year, jumped away.

Gomez Marchante was caught two kilometres from the finish by the chasing duo, who then battled it out for the stage win. Behind, in fifth and sixth place, came Valverde and Sastre.

?I was definitely stronger than them, it wasn?t just that Carlos and Valverde were watching each other.? Di Luca – forced to pull out of the Tour after just two days with a urinary tract infection – said afterwards.

?But in any case, I?m not a real favourite here. Sastrea and Valverde will be up there in the third week. The race has just begun.?

Di Luca has a lead of just four seconds over Brajkovic, with Kashechkin third at 18 seconds.

The bad news for Di Luca and for British fans from stage five was that the Italian?s team-mate Charly Wegelius was forced to abandon the race after crashing early on.

A valued climber who would almost certainly have been of great use to Di Luca defending his lead in the mountains, race doctors said Wegelius suffered multiple cuts and abrasions. The Briton rode on for 70 kilometres after the crash before finally throwing in the towel.