Three stages out of a possible total of six – as well as two second places – are a clear indication which sprinter is ruling the roost in this year?s Vuelta: Spaniard Oscar Freire.

On Thursday the Rabobank rider took yet another bunch sprint win, and on this occasion, Alessandro Petacchi (Milram), Tom Boonen (Quick Steps) and the pure fastmen had no excuse whatsoever.

The stage had a flat-as-the-proverbial-pancake finale, a nice tailwind to ensure everybody?s legs weren?t too tired and to cap it all, Petacchi?s Milram squad gained maximum collaboration from T-Mobile and Lampre in pegging back the break of the day – containing Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas).

So it was no surprise that 300 metres from the line in Logroñes there were a mass of Milram jersies on the front of the bunch. But yet again Ale-jet failed to lift off in the final metres.

Instead after the Italian had accelerated to his top speed, Freire more than matched the Milram rider when he charged out of the middle of the field and past him with breathtaking ease. His superiorty was so clear that Petacchi even sat up before the fiinsh, rolling across the line in sixth place.

Second in the bunch sprint was up-and-coming Spanish sprinter Koldo Fernandez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), with Angelo Furlan (Credit Agricole) taking third and Boonen, slowly but surely improving his form, in fourth. The overall lead remains in the hands of Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse D?Epargne) for a third successive day.

With a whopping overall lead in the points jersey competition – 115 to Paolo Bettini?s 61 – Freire was asked if his plans to leave the Vuelta before Madrid constituted a lack of respect for his country’s biggest bike race.

?If I lacked respect for the Vuelta:? Freire retorted, ?I wouldn?t be here in the first place, would I? Instead I?d be racing somewhere in Italy.?

?I?ve always said that the World Championships were my number one objective of the year. And I think I bring prestige to the Vuelta by winning stages here.?

He refused to state when he would be quitting exactly, although it is rumoured to be at some point in the second week.

?I?m going to go on winning stages for as long as I can.? Freire argued. ?As long as my team get me to the finish where I should be, there?s no question of me not having a go.?

Unsung hero of the day was Magnus Backstedt, who took off with three other riders in the first 10 kilometres of the race and was only reeled in with about the same number of kilometres left to go in the 184.3 kilometre stage.

The move seemed almost doomed to collapse given the stage profile, but although Friday?s stage to Zaragoza is very similar on paper, Freire argued that the chances of a break staying away would be higher.

?Given what they?ve seen today, the odds are Milram won?t be so interested in working to pull back the breaks, and we?ve got to start thinking about [overall candidate and Rabobank team-mate] Denis Menchov as well so we won?t be doing much work either.?

?I don?t know if we?ll see a bunch sprint again this side of the Pyrenees.? Freire concluded. But if there was, after Thursday there can be few doubts about who would be the top contender to win it.

Oscar Freire sprints to win stage six. Photo: Graham Watson, www.grahamwatson.com.

Tour of Spain stage six Reinosa – Logroño 184.3km
1 Oscar Freire (Spain) Rabobank 4-24-10
2 Koldo Fernandez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
3 Angelo Furlan (Ita) Credit Agricole
4 Tom Boonen (Fra) Quick Step
5 André Korff (Ger) T-Mobile
6 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Milram
7 Aurelien Clerc (Swi) Bouygues
8 Andre Greipel (Ger) T-Mobile
9 Francesco Chicchi (Ita) Liquigas
10 Rony Martias (Fra) Bouygues
75 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas all st

Tour of Spain overall after six stages
1 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne 24-34-51
2 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 1-06
3 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
4 Maxine Monfort (Bel) Cofidis
5 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery
6 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval-Prodir all st
7 Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) at 1-28
8 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis at 1-33
9 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 1-36
10 Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita) Liquigas at 1-49
165 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 43-52



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Stage three: Bettini bounces back with Vuelta stage win
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Official site: www.lavuelta.com.