It's official: Contador is the new race leader, 1:52 ahead of Valverde and 2:28 ahead of Rodriguez, who drops to third place after a terrible day.
Santander - Fuente Dé
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The time is ticking away for Rodriguez... the overnight race leader still has one Saxo Bank rider on his wheel as he approaches the finish line, and concedes a huge 2:37. Behind him, Hernandez smiles and clenches his fist... what an image.
Valverde out sprints Henao to take second place and an eight-second time bonus.
What a victory for Alberto Contador, who solos over the line to win the stage and take the red jersey!
Contador is looking over his shoulder. He knows Valverde is closing in... but he should hold on.
Sky's Sergio Henao is leading the chase as Valverde puts in a dig. One kilometre to go. The gap is 14 seconds.
This final climb has been long and gradual: it actually looked to be flat, but the road has been edging uphill ever so slightly for the past 15km. Contador is now out of his saddle. He knows the Valverde group are in pursuit.
The gap is tumbling for Contador vis-a-vis the chasing group. He'll still be in red tonight, but the stage win is not a certainty - Valverde is getting stronger and stronger, and is just 15 seconds back.
Contador is on nearing the final part of this Cat.2 Fuenta De climb. It's been uphill for the past 15 kilometres, but just steadily so. He has just 30 seconds on the Valverde chasing group now.
Joaquim Rodriguez has ridden a near-flawless Vuelta until today, when it has just imploded. He was caught out and now has no team-mates. To add insult to injury, every time he turns round he can see Saxo Bank team-mates Hernandez and Paulinho.
Contador only has a minute on the Valverde group - but he won't be too concerned about that. It's the split to Rodriguez that is important, and that's 2:48.
The Valverde trio has caught the remnants of the initial break - including the likes of Henao, Verdugo, Mondory and that man Tiralongo.
Valverde's group is down to a trio: him, Intxausti and Geniez of Argos Shimano.
Contador nears the start of the climb. He has 1:21 on the Valverde chasing group and 2:30 on the Rodriguez group, which includes his Saxo team-mates Hernandez and Paulinho.
Quintana sits up after leading Valverde onto the wheel of some of the escapees - including another Movistar man, Intxausti. The green jersey is now trying to put Rodriguez under as much pressure as possible. He's targetting second place on GC now.
Contador passes under the 10km-to-go banner. He has 1:40 over Valverde and Quintana, and more importantly, he has 2:25 over Rodriguez.
Saxo Bank have put on a masterclass today: both Contador's rivals have Saxo riders sandbagging them as they try and chase back towards the white jersey.
Contador is time trialing towards the start of this final climb. Valverde has Quintana with him, band they have dropped Rodriguez!
Contador attacks! The Spaniard is going solo now: he's jumped clear of Tiralongo and rides on his own towards glory. Meanwhile, red jersey Rodriguez is 2:20 down and has Saxo's Hernandez sandbagging on his back wheel.
There it is: the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff car handing out a new bidon to Paolo Tiralongo. This could well be the winning move of the Vuelta - and that old friendship is proving so important.
The two leaders - Contador and Tiralongo - have 20 seconds on the other escapees and 1:50 over the Rodriguez group. The Froome group is 3:35 back.
Contador and Tiralongo have gone on the attack! They have dropped the other escapees and the two friends and former team-mates are on a mission.
Contador takes the second intermediate sprint to cut his deficit to 22 seconds on GC.
Of course, Contador effectively has another team-mate in this group in Paolo Tiralongo: the pair were team-mates at Astana and in last year's Giro, Contador gifted a win to his friend. It's clearly pay-back time: Tiralongo is putting in a huge pull on the front of the leading group...
Saxo Bank really caught Alberto Contador's rivals napping, setting things up perfectly for the final climb to Fuente De. Another big loser is Chris Froome: he has five Sky team-mates pulling on the front of the peloton, which is riding 2:42 down on the leaders. They do have Colombia's Sergio Henao in the Contador group, though.
The gap keeps on growing: 1:10 now for the Contador leading group.
Contador is right on the front of this break alongside Paulinho. They are driving the pace. The third Saxo rider, Bruno Pires, is back with the the chasing group with Hernandez, trying to disrupt the rhythm of the Rodriguez/Valverde chase. The lead is 52 seconds now. Enthralling stuff.
The lead of the Contador break is now up to 40 seconds on the chasing Rodriguez group - that puts the Saxo Bank man in the virtual red jersey.
We're approaching the end of the descent and the leading group has lost a few riders: Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel) and Jesus Hernandez (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff) drop back to the Rodriguez/Valverde chasing group. You can bet that Hernandez is now going to do his utmost to spoil the rhythm of this six-man group...
The Contador leading group has 20 seconds on the chasing trio of Rodriguez, Valverde and Losada, and 1:22 over the peloton containing Froome and Gesink.
French veteran David Moncoutie has not given up on his slim hopes of winning the king of the mountains - he takes five points over the top of the Cat.2 Collada de la Hoz, with Jeannesson second and Contador third. Moncoutie announced on the rest day that the Vuelta will be his last race as a professional: in less then five days, the 37-year-old will hang up his cycling shoes.
Contador has joined the leading group, which has 16 seconds over Rodriguez, Valverde and Katusha's Alberto Losada. Meanwhile, the main pack containing the likes of Chris Froome and Robert Gesink is 55 seconds back.
It's a fascinating scenario because Contador has three Saxo Bank team-mates - Pires, Paulinho and Hernandez - further up the road in that leading break. Valverde has four - Quintana, Intxausti, Lastras and Erviti - but Rodriguez has no one.
Contador has 15 seconds over red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez and white jersey Alejandro Valverde.
CONTADOR ATTACKS! The white jersey puts in an unexpected early attack on this second climb and he has dropped his rivals.
The next climb starts right away: it's the Cat.2 Collado La Hoz (5.7km at 7.6% and a rise of 435m).
The two leading groups have come together on the descent so we have the following out in front: Landa, Ballan, Henao, Nocentini, Duque, Mollema, Tiralongo, Mondory, Pate, Verdugo, Quintana, Cunego, Pires, Intxausti, Ligthart, Terpstra, Bakelants, Lastras, Paulinho, Hernandez, Ramirez, Geniez, Jeannesson, Erviti, Moncoutie and Astarloza. They have 1:15 over the peloton.
Arnold Jeannesson crosses the summit of the Collado de Ozalba ahead of Niki Terpstra and Alessandro Ballan. With three, two and one point respectively, this has no impact on the kind of the mountains standings.
A seven-man leading group has formed featuring Jeannesson, Terpstra, Pires, Ramirez, Pate, Ballan and Astarloza. A splinter group of 18 riders has jumped clear of the peloton. The leaders have 19 seconds over the chasing group and a further 20 seconds over the peloton.
Mikel Astarloza has joined Ballan out ahead. Jeannesson has caught the chasing group, while Lars Boom has now been caught by the peoton. It's all pretty close, with only 40-odd seconds separating the front of the race and the peloton.
Both Moncoutie and Duque are back with the peloton now as Arnold Jeannesson of FDJ-BigMat launches an attack near the summit of the climb. Philippe Gilbert looks to be chomping at the bit too.
Alessandro Ballan attacks from the leading group!
Attack from David Moncoutie in the peloton! Cofidis may be losing one man in the leading group, but they may be gaining another...
Colombian sprinter Leonardo Duque loses contact with the leading group on this short but sharp climb.
The temperature is up to 25 degrees and the lead is down to 55 seconds.
We're onto the first climb of the day, the Cat.3 Collado de Ozalba (5.9km long at an average gradient of 6.6% and a total rise of 395 metres). The break starts the climb with only one minute to play with over the chasing pack.
Things are not looking so promising for this group: the lead is down to 1:10 with the first of those three climbs about 10km away.
The reason why Javier Ramirez needed to see the medical car was that a stone flew up and his his nose, causing him a small cut. It must have come from under the wheels of a passing car or one of his fellow escapees. The Spaniard is okay now and rides along with the leading riders.
Garmin-Sharp and RadioShack-Nissan combine on the front of the peloton to whittle the lead down to 1:40. The two American teams have no riders in the break and are keen to contest for the stage win today.
Javier Ramirez, one of the escapees, needs some medical attention. The gap is down to two minutes for the 11 leaders.
The riders are passing through the feeding zone. The gap is 3:07 for the escapees. And the average speed for the second hour today was 45.4 km/h.
Lloyd Mondory, who was part of the break in stage 15 to Lagos de Covadonga, takes the intermediate sprint ahead of Bruno Pires and Leonardo Duque. But it's pretty much uncontested. The peloton is being led by Katusha and Garmin-Sharp, neither of whom have any riders in this 11-man break.
The gap is up to 1:40 for the 11 leaders as they approach the intermediate sprint and the feeding zone ahead of the first climb of the day.
This looks promising: a group of 11 riders has opened up a gap on the front of the peloton. They are Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Pim Ligthart (Vacansoleil-DCM), Danny Pate (Sky), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Lloyd Mondory (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Alessandro Ballan (BMC), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Bruno Pires (Saxo Bank), Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Javier Ramirez (Andalucia).
The riders are onto an uncategorised climb ahead of the town of Comillas. Incredibly, after more than 70km of racing today, the peloton still rides as one. No break has yet stuck, despite numerous efforts.
Last year's overall winner, Juan Jose Cobo, is passing by his hometown of Cabezon de la Sal. The Spaniard has not had a very good race: he's currently one hour and 27 minutes down in 62nd place after having ridden a race largely in support of his in-form Movistar team-mate Valverde.
Rodriguez is back with the peloton after that small scare. Good work from Katusha.
Katusha are doing their best to bring leader Rodriguez back into the first group. The gap is 14 seconds at the moment.
There's a split in the peloton: Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde are both in the leading group - but red jersey Joaquim Rodriguez has been caught out and finds himself in the second group. This should be very interesting.
Simon Clarke, the polka dot jersey, is one of 19 riders who make a move off the front. But once again, they are reabsorbed by the peloton.
Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Sharp) and Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) edge ahead but their move is quickly thwarted.
A reminder that Alejandro Valverde is still wearing the green jersey although he trails Joaquim Rodriguez by 164 points to 139 in the green jersey standings. Rodriguez, as well as being the red jersey, leads the combined competition, for which Alberto Contador wears the leader's white jersey by default. Australian Simon Clarke is in polka dots as the kind of the mountains. The Orica-GreenEdge rider leads Rodriguez by two slender points.
It's been a very fast start to the stage, with a speed of 48.3 km/h for the first hour of racing today.
Sky's Rigoberto Uran and Euskaltel's Romain Sicard are the latest riders to jump clear of the peloton, but their breakaway attempt is shortlived and they're pulled back in.
Dutchman Rob Ruijgh of Vacansoleil-DCM abandons the race. That's an odd one because Ruijgh seemed to be riding into some decent form. More on his withdraw when we get it.
Since the first rest day, the Vuelta a Espana has really been about three superhuman Spanish riders, with varied combinations of Rodriguez, Contador and Valverde finishing first, second and third on two occasions, 11th, 12th and 13th on one occasion and third, fourth and fifth on another. Our blogger, Blazin' Saddles, takes a look back at how things have panned out in a thrilling second phase of the Vuelta...
As the riders roar along in the direction of Torrelavega - the birthplace of triple world champion Oscar Freire - it's Rabobank, Movistar, Team Sky and Astana who are controlling the tempo on the front of the peloton.
Simon Geschke (Argos-Shimano) and Javier Aramendia (Caja-Rural) break clear but it's short-lived and they're back with the bunch. Aramendia was so aggressive at the start of this Vuelta but he's been quiet over the past week. In fact, his last attempt at breaking away - for a fifth time - was last Tuesday in the stage following the first rest day.
The leading group balloons to around 40 riders but some fierce pace-setting by Garmin-Sharp reels it in and restores the status quo.
We now have a group of 30 riding ahead of the peloton after yet another fast and frenetic start to a Vuelta stage. This race just keeps on getting better and better!
The seven riders are swept up by the peloton so we're back as one.
Martin and Hansen are joined by five other riders but the group is minimal. It's going to be a fair fight today for the decisive break to stick: the stage really suits a breakaway and there are many teams without a win and riders with something to prove.
It's Spaniard Dani Moreno's birthday today: the Katusha rider celebrates turning 31 with another tough day in support of his friend and team-mate Joaquim Rodriguez, the red jersey.
Eight riders join Rasch but the break comes nothing, allowing a counter-attacking opportunity for Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
ATTACK: Gabriel Rasch of FDJ-BigMat puts in an instant dig off the front of the peloton.
They're off! No withdrawals to report over the rest day, so a field of 181 riders has taken to the start today.
The riders are rolling through the neutral zone ahead of the official start of today's stage. The crowds in Santander are huge and the temperature is currently 22 degrees Celsius. Two Movistar riders are having mechanical issues - defending champion Juan Jose Cobo and Imanol Erviti.
It's very much a two horse race now, with Rodriguez leading Contador by 28 seconds in the overall classification, with another Spaniard - Alejandro Valverde - all but guaranteed a place on the podium, trailing the red jersey by 2:04. British hope Chris Froome is now 4:52 off the pace in fourth place.
The remaining riders enjoyed a rest day yesterday after three back-to-back gruelling mountain stages. On Monday, Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez edged further ahead after a thrilling finale to stage 16, won by Italy's Dario Cataldo from a break. Rodriguez survived a medley of attacks from his main rival Alberto Contador on the ridiculously steep final climb of the 184km stage from Gijon to Valgrande-Pajares, taking third place and some vital bonus seconds behind Cataldo and Thomas de Gendt.
Welcome to live coverage of stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana, a rolling 187km ride from Santander to Fuente De, where the stage will conclude with a gradual Cat.2 slope to the finish.