Denis Menchov (Rabobank) proved that he is on track to repeat his 2005 win in the Tour of Spain as he and Italian Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir) crossed the line together and ahead of the rest of the field in the summit finish of Cerler on Sunday.

Just as one of cycling?s unwritten laws specifies, the Russian and pintsized Italian climber had shared out the work on the long, exposed climb to the Pyrenean ski station and on the summit they divided up the spoils: the stage for Piepoli and the overall for Menchov.

After Piepoli attacked with seven kilomeres to go, their final advantage over a two man chasing group containing little-know Spanish rider Ezequiel Mosquera (Karpin-Galicia) and gc contender Carlos Sastre (CSC) was not huge: just 17 seconds.

But Cerler is by no means the toughest of climbs, making it hard for major gaps to open, and Sastre?s declarations at the finish said it all.

?Denis [Menchov] is stronger than the rest of the field right now.? the Spanish veteran said. ?Coming after yesterday?s time trial, everybody was on the rivet, but Denish showed that he?s come out of the best.?

?We did the right thing trying to open up the race.? – with CSC team-mate Iñigo Cuesta, who shredded the field on the first half of the Cerler climb. ?But Denis turned out to be stronger.?

Overall the Russian now leads by 2-01 on his compatriot Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse D?Epargne), with Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) third, at 2-27.

Sastre is still just within the danger zone, in fourth place at 3-02, and normally one of these four riders should win the Vuelta. But both Efimkin and Evans lost 1-03 to Menchov at Cerler, and Sastre is not sounding optimistic either, so it would look like the race is Menchov?s to lose, not theirs to win.

?There?s still a long, long way to go to Madrid.? Menchov pointed out. ?I?ve taken a big step forward, but I want to play this one cautiously. We didn?t know how strong Devolder was on the climb, so my aim was not to take the jersey, just to test his strength.?

?The best news for me is my team is strong. .?- a fair point, given Rabobank will have to control the race from two long weeks, and as Scotland?s Robert Millar found out back in 1985, for a foreign team to dominate the Vuelta is never easy.

Previous leader Stijn Devolder?s dreams of a podium finish in Madrid looked increasingly unlikely as the Discovery Channel rider lost over four minutes at Cerler.

But things went even worse for Oscar Pereiro, who had started out as the big race favourite, but packed during stage nine. The Caisse D?Epargne pro has been suffering from a stomach virus for the last three days and quit at the first feed.

Monday?s mountain stage to Andorra is the toughest of the entire race, and the summit finish at Arcalis should confirm Menchov?s status as Vuelta leader. Tuesday then sees the race reach its first ?rest? day, with a 300 kilometre road transfer south to keep the riders amused.

Tour of Spain stage nine Huesca – Cerler

1 Leonado Piepoli (Italy) Saunier Duval-Prodir 167.6km in 4-28-21
2 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at st
3 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 17sec
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at st
5 Oliver Zaugg (Swi) Gerolsteiner at 51sec
6 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Relax-Gam at 1-03
7 Luis Perez (Spa) Andalucia-Caja Sur
8 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
9 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne
10 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas all st.
140 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 14-53

Tour of Spain overall after nine stages

1 Denis Menchov (Russia) Rabobank 33-54-46
2 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 2-01
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 2-27
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at 3-02
5 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 4-02
6 Stijn Devolder (Bel) Discovery at 4-28
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-42
8 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 4-58
9 Maxime Monfort (Bel) Cofidis at 5-07
10 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 5-19
148 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 57-58

TOUR OF SPAIN 2007: STAGE REPORTS
Stage eight (TT): Devolder soars to race lead
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.