LAGOS DE COVADONGA, Spain — Russian cyclist Vladimir Efimkin pushed ahead of the pack and held on to win the grueling fourth stage of the Spanish Vuelta Tuesday to assume the overall lead.
The Caisse d’Epargne rider pulled away 11 kilometers (eight miles) from the finish after the start of the 1000-meter (3,280-feet) climb to Lagos — rated as the hardest in the Vuelta’s modern history — to win the stage with a time of 4 hours, 39 minutes, 55 seconds.
Efimkin took over the leader’s gold jersey from Spanish rider Oscar Freire with an overall time of 16:02:50.
Italian rider Leonardo Piepoli of Saunier Duval-Prodir was second and Discovery Channel’s Stijin Devolder came in third. Denis Menchov of Rabobank and Cofidis’ Maxime Monfort rounded out the top-five, all finishing 1:06 back of Efimkin on the 185.1-kilometer (115-mile) leg.
T-Mobile fired Leonardo Bernucci before the fourth stage after it was confirmed earlier Tuesday that the Italian rider tested positive for doping at the Tour of Germany last month.
As the green Asturian hillside slowly gave way to snowcapped mountain peaks, Efimkin built a lead of nearly two minutes ahead of the pack. A chasing group led by Menchov, Carlos Sastre and Tour de France runner-up Cadel Evans slowly edged closer, but Efimkin was never threatened.
It was the 15th time a stage has finished at Lagos, a record for the Vuelta.
Sastre, who rides for Team CSC, finished sixth with the same time as the group led by Piepoli. Predictor-Lotto’s Evans was seventh — 1:28 back. Freire finished 100th, more than 18 minutes behind Efimkin.
The mountain climbs continue with Wednesday’s 157.4-kilometer (97.8 mile) fifth stage starting in Cangas de Onis. Cyclists face four mountain ascents, including another big climb before the finish in Reinosa.
A new winner will be crowned in Madrid on Sept. 23, with 2006 champion Alexandre Vinokourov banned from the race after testing positive for a blood transfusion at this year’s Tour.