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Vuelta a Espana

Andrew Hood’s top-10 list from the 2012 Vuelta a Espana

For Velo's European correspondent Andrew Hood, the Vuelta was the most exciting of this year's grand tours

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MADRID (VN) – The 67th Vuelta a España concluded Sunday with a bunch sprint to put a high-speed exclamation point on what’s been arguably the season’s most interesting and exciting grand tour.

With 10 mountaintop finishes and only one individual time trial, this year’s Vuelta seemed ideal for a Spanish goat. And that certainly proved to be the case, with the top three Spanish riders dominating the action and fourth-place Chris Froome (Sky) nearly 10 minutes off the pace.

The top three were only separated by little more than 90 seconds, indicating just how tight the fight for red truly was.

The race surprised from start to finish, with an opening-day team time trial and a first half of racing that was almost like a string of classics, a la Flèche Wallonne, all the way across Spain. Incredibly steep climbs —with gradients up to 30 percent in some of the steepest, cruelest roads in Europe — provided a spectacular backdrop to Alberto Contador’s comeback victory.

It was a big-ring climb, however, that saw Contador take control of the race in an exciting display of tactics, guts and tenacity, putting the sword to Joaquim Rodríguez’s dreams of finally winning a grand tour.

Contador wins the red jersey, but the Vuelta comes away as the real victor of the past three weeks. Spanish cycling proved it can proudly stand alone.

Here are 10 highlights from this year’s Vuelta:

Contador: “King” Contador is back, with yet another grand-tour victory in his highly successful, yet equally divisive career. And he did it with typical Contador panache, via an endless string of persistent attacks and well-executed tactics that finally knocked off Rodríguez when he least expected it.

It’s hard to fully understand the pressure and anxiety Contador must have faced during this Vuelta, his first grand tour since coming off his controversial clenbuterol ban. With less than a week of racing in his legs, Contador got stronger as the race unfolded. His attacks seemed to lack some of the octane of before, but he never stopped racing aggressively.

The victory confirms Contador is the best grand-tour rider of his generation and sets up what should be an epic Tour for the centenary edition of cycling’s greatest race next year.

Valverde: Also coming off his own controversial racing ban, the Vuelta capped what is perhaps the best season ever for Alejandro Valverde, with consistent and quality racing from January all the way through what’s planned to be a raid on the world championships later this month.

“Balaverde” was back at his best, this time he insists clean, and he took it to Contador all the way to Madrid despite seeing his GC hopes dashed when he lost 55 seconds in stage 4 as he crashed behind Team Sky’s contentious echelon play.

Valverde wasn’t even going to race the Vuelta until the Tour de France went sideways. Movistar is glad he did, because defending champion Juanjo Cobo was nowhere to be seen. A winner of the Vuelta in 2009 — the last grand tour Valverde raced until this year — Valverde still might have another grand tour in his legs.

Rodriguez: “Purito” came ever so close to finally winning a grand tour, only succumbing to Contador on a day when almost no one expected big attacks. Rodríguez hates rest days and it showed, when his grip on the red jersey unraveled in his lone bad day on the deceptively steep big-ring climb to Fuente Dé on Wednesday.

A winner of three stages and both the points and combined jerseys, Rodríguez takes consolation knowing he pushed Contador to the edge. With his second grand-tour podium of the season — he finished second to Ryder Hesjedal at the Giro d’Italia by 16 seconds — Rodríguez vows to take on the Tour de France next season. A win might not be in the cards, but he would happily settle for a spot on the podium — again.

Froome: The Kenya-born Sky rider got a taste of reality during this Vuelta after riding high since last year’s breakout second-place finish. Hot off second at the Tour de France and a bronze medal at the Olympic Games time trial, Froome expected to hand it to the Spanish mountain goats on their home terrain. Instead, it was Froome who took a drubbing.

It became clear in the first week that Froome was not the same rider he was in July, or even last fall at the Vuelta. “Froome-Dog” showed his tenacity by hanging on to fight for fourth place. He never gave up, revealing a strength of character that will come in handy next summer when he will likely square off against Contador again.

Rather than leave the Vuelta with a bitter taste in his mouth, Froome says he takes some valuable lessons that will help him grow for the future. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; Froome is certainly hoping so.

Talansky: America found another grand-tour rider with a future. Andrew Talansky delivered a rock-solid performance that he and Garmin brass always believed he was capable of, but delivering a top-10 in a Vuelta as demanding and hard-fought as this year’s shows there’s more to Talansky than meets the eye.

Incredibly focused, with character and ambition to match, the 23-year-old rode shoulder-to-shoulder against established stars to confirm he can continue to develop into a potential grand-tour winner. Coupled with Tejay van Garderen’s fifth at the Tour, America’s grand-tour future seems secure.

Gilbert: Belgian super-star Philippe Gilbert delivered two stage victories that not only helped take pressure off what was looking to be his worst professional season since his rookie year, but he delivered them just in time to raise hopes — and fears in his rivals — that he’s hitting top form in time for the Valkenberg worlds later this month.

“Phil-Gil” was winless coming into this Vuelta and the Belgian press was piling it on. His victories in Barcelona and Segovia helped changed the tone of the headlines and bolstered confidence that the Wallonne star is poised for a run at the rainbow jersey.

After falling flat in the spring classics, the Tour and the Olympics, a world title would give Gilbert the last laugh. With every world champion except one coming out of the Vuelta, dating back to the late 1990s, the Vuelta turned into a three-week training camp for the Belgian. With the Cauberg waiting at the finish line at the worlds, Gilbert could be hitting his form right on time.

Degenkolb: Everyone thought Marcel Kittel would be Germany’s next big sprinter superstar. That still might be the case, but John Degenkolb dominated the Vuelta with five superb stage wins and proved he has the punch to deserve team support.

The young German ace upended more experienced sprinters across what was a very non-sprinter-friendly Vuelta. Riding all the way to Madrid will only make Degenkolb even stronger. And leaving Spain with so many wins will only bolster his confidence and ambitions for next season.

Jerseys: Behind the GC, there was a battle for the other podium spots. Rodríguez also won the points jersey and the combined jersey. There’s no young-rider’s jersey in the Vuelta (if there were, Talansky would have won it). Simon Clark (Orica-GreenEdge) won the King of the Mountains jersey, ending David Moncutie’s four-year hold on the jersey. Moncountie retires after the Vuelta while Clark won a stage and held a margin on the KOM jersey all the way to Madrid. Movistar took the team prize, 9:40 ahead of Euskaltel-Euskadi.

Milestones: The Vuelta was full of important milestones. Ji Cheng (Agros-Shimano) became the first Chinese rider to start and finish a grand tour, something that will only further generate excitement in cycling’s final frontier. Daniel Teklahaimanot (Orica-GreenEdge) finished the Vuelta to become the first black African to complete a grand tour. And Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) was the only rider to start and finish all three grand tours this season. That certainly deserves a cold cerveza.

Vuelta rules: The 67th Vuelta concluded Sunday in Madrid with yet another enormous public display of fan support for the Spanish tour, which enjoyed perhaps its largest crowds ever. Good weather, an original course design and a nail-biting GC fight between Spain’s biggest stars all helped create an entertaining, unpredictable race. The return of Contador helped drive media interest, pushing the race back onto the front pages in Spain.

Next year’s race will start in Galicia and will likely see a return to southern Spain after staying in northern Spain for its entirety this year. Rumors of a race-ending trip to the Canary Islands and a climbing finale up the Teide volcano seem to be on ice for the meantime, but if the past few years are any indication, race director Javier Guillén and his staff are sure to pull a few surprises out of their hat.

The Vuelta will never be as prestigious as the Tour, but it’s certainly making a case for being the most exciting and interesting of the three grand tours to watch.