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MADRID, Spain (VN) — Bola del Mundo was almost a mountain too far for Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) in Saturday’s gripping finale to what’s been a wild, nail-biting Vuelta a España from start to finish.
Contador breathed a sigh of relief after struggling up the steep, spectacular climb in stage 20, ceding ground to archrivals Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), yet retaining his ever-shrinking lead.
“Now the Vuelta is won,” Contador said on Spanish radio after crossing the line. “It’s great to come back to competition, and to be capable of winning again was very important.”
Contador was pedaling squares when Rodríguez and then Valverde dropped him midway up the short, 3km but very steep Bola del Mundo finale in what was the last of 10 mountain-top finishes in the 67th Vuelta.
The thousands of fans lining the narrow strip of concrete up Bola del Mundo saw Contador race defensively.
“The Pistolero” held a comfortable GC margin and after attacking every time the road went up through this Vuelta, he could afford to hold his fire. But things quickly began to unravel when Rodríguez and then Valverde dropped the hammer.
Despite looking a bit ragged at the summit, the red jersey insisted everything was under control up the final climb in a demanding and emotional Vuelta for Contador, who will win another grand tour following his return from his controversial clenbuterol ban.
Although he admitted he was suffering, Contador said he was also enjoying the grinding climb that marked the end of a long and controversial road that started when he tested positive for traces of clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour de France.
“I knew that Purito was going to attack but I also knew that he could not make up the difference to me,” Contador said. “I decided not to follow and opted to continue at my rhythm to be able to enjoy it.”
The fans certainly did and the grinding Bola del Mundo climb turned into a coronation parade for Contador.
It wasn’t easy, however. At the top of the windswept, isolated summit in Spain’s Guadarrama mountains, Contador saw his lead to Valverde shaved to 1:16, with Rodríguez confirming third at 1:37 back.
With only Sunday’s 115km parade through Madrid to conclude the 67th Vuelta, both Valverde and Rodríguez are probably looking back over the past three weeks to wonder where they might have lost the race.
For Valverde, it came in stage 4, when he crashed as Team Sky surged to cut the peloton across heavy crosswinds and lost 55 seconds. For Rodríguez, it came in Wednesday’s coup, when Contador and Saxo-Tinkoff sprung a trap on the final road up the second-category Fuente Dé climb.
Saturday’s penultimate stage saw yet more fireworks, with a cagey Denis Menchov (Katusha) picking off Richie Porte (Sky) out of a breakaway to save the season for the two-time Vuelta champion.
“It was important to end the season on a good note,” said Menchov, who wins for the first time in a Katusha jersey. “I was believing in my chances, but you never know until you cross the line. We had a good Vuelta, third with Purito, his three wins and now this. We cannot complain.”
With Bola del Mundo in the bag, only Madrid’s final dash to the line remains to put the 2012 Vuelta on ice.
Contador will take a huge victory that reconfirms his place as the king of the grand tours among his generation of riders.
In his first major showdown against Contador, Chris Froome (Sky) simply ran out of gas. Second in last year’s Vuelta and second at this year’s Tour, Froome bravely fought to fourth place, admitting that Contador simply was stronger.
“Perhaps it’s the fatigue catching up. I don’t feel as fresh as I did at the Tour,” Froome told VeloNews. “Contador is fresher because he didn’t race the Tour. It was interesting racing against him. I am sure we will see each other again in the races.”
Valverde, too, is content with the Vuelta, winning two stages, finishing second to Contador and helping Movistar secure the team classification. The result was a surprise because Valverde wasn’t even going to race the Vuelta and only decided to once things didn’t go as well as expected in the Tour.
Valverde is looking sharp for the worlds, where later this month he will captain a strong Spanish team that will also include Contador, Rodríguez and Oscar Freire.
For Purito, losing the Vuelta was a bitter pill to swallow, especially after leading the race from nearly the start. The string of steep uphill finales played to his favor, but Contador out-gunned him on the stage following the second rest day on the road to Fuente Dé.
“Who knows, maybe I will never win a grand tour,” Rodríguez said, who was second to Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year. “I am proud of the manner I raced. I fought all the way to the end, and to lose to Contador, who is a big champion, is not something to cry about.”
Behind the podium contenders there was an equally bitter fight for the top 10.
Nicholas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale) started off strong, but faded out of the top 10 in what’s his last chance to ride GC in a grand tour for a while. Next year, he joins Contador at Saxo-Tinkoff.
Robert Gesink led Rabobank with sixth, but he was never truly in contention. Gesink and Laurens Ten Dams, who slotted into eighth, could not challenge the Spanish, neither on GC nor in the hunt for a stage victory.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) rode solidly over three weeks to finish seventh overall in just his second grand tour, confirming his promise as a future GC contender in the three-week races.
The second-year pro consistently stayed with the top GC favorites and never cracked. An opening-day crash in the team time trial by four other teammates handicapped him coming out of the gates, but he rode with quiet confidence to finish off the Vuelta on a high note.
“This Vuelta confirms to me that I can race for GC in grand tours,” Talansky told VeloNews. “There were some bad moments and I learned how to push through them. I knew I was capable of riding for GC for three weeks, but it’s something else to actually do it.”
The sprinters will have their final shot at glory in Sunday’s finale in what should be a massive homecoming parade for Contador.