Vuelta a España feature, September 22, 2008
25-year-old Alberto Contador carved his name into the annals of cycling history by becoming the first Spaniard to win all three Grand Tours on Sunday in his home town of Madrid. The Astana star who had been denied his opportunity to defend his 2007 Tour de France title when the race organiser refused to invite his team had vowed to get revenge at his home Tour, and he succeeded.
Under immense pressure to live up to the title of top favourite, Contador raced a smart first half of the Vuelta, entering into the critical stages just seconds from the overall lead, side by side with teammate Levi Leipheimer. As an additional burden, Contador had to face the crush of the press as rumors of a return to racing by Lance Armstrong became fact. The possibility that the seven-time Tour champion might join Johan Bruyneel at Astana and relegate Contador back to domestique status seemed to light a fire in the young rider's heart.
In the stages following the second rest day, "Kid" Contador became "King" Contador as he dominated the two mountain stages, including the dreaded Angliru, and entered into the final week with a lead commanding enough to allow his Team Astana to easily control the race, and even let rival Team Caisse d'Epargne take two stages.
Contador made it clear who was the best in the race, and, with the exception of his own teammate Levi Leipheimer who won the penultimate mountain time trial, he dominated his rivals in a fashion which hadn't been seen since – dare we say it – Lance Armstrong last won the Tour de France.
The other theme of the final week was the continued success of escape groups. Three stages were won under those circumstances. Stage 18 introduced a previously unknown Caisse d'Epargne rider to the world, and the next stage caused a great fervor, raising discussions of "fairness" and "wheel sucking".
In between, Quick Step showed that sprinters still had a role to play, with Tom Boonen taking his second Vuelta stage before letting teammate Wouter Weylandt sprint for glory the next day.
Final Vuelta wrap-up
Stage 13 - September 13: San Vicente de la Barquera - Alto de L'Angliru, 209.5km
The Alto de l'Angliru is the most feared climb in Spain, but Contador proved that he is its master. "I was targeting this climb. It's the most mythical climb in Spain," he said. The Spaniard had gone into the stage third overall, 29seconds down, but he used the mountain to catapult himself into the lead, 1:07 ahead of his teammate Levi Leipheimer.
Alejandro Valverde was able to make up some of the time he had lost the previous week, finishing second on the stage. The biggest loser was CSC's Carlos Sastre, who was dropped first by Contador and Valverde, and then by Leipheimer.
Stage 14 - September 14: Oviedo - E. E. Fuentes de Invierno, 158.4km
What worked on the 13th stage worked on the next stage, too. It was the Vuelta's final day in the mountains and Contador used the stage to make it unmistakably clear that he was the dominant rider in Spain. He won his second stage in a row, this time beating his teammate Leipheimer by two seconds. He outdistanced both of his biggest rivals, Sastre by 20 seconds and Valverde by a whole minute.
Two names that emerged out of the stage were Ezequiel Mosquera of Xacobea Galicia and Rabobank's Robert Gesink. The 32 year-old Mosquera solidified his fourth place overall by blasting the group of favourites on the final climb up the Puerto de San Isidro. He dropped them all with the tempo he set in the final 5.5km, until the two Astana riders attacked him with barely one km to go.
Gesink, 22, moved up to fifth overall in only his first Grand Tour. He showed his climbing ability, overtaking Sastre on the way up the final climb.
Stage 15 - September 15: Cudillero - Ponferrada, 202km
With the mountains behind them and the final winner determined, the Vuelta returned to its habit of successful breakaways. David Garcia of Xacobea Galicia was the happy winner in this stage, taking off out of the remnants of a large escape group with 3km to go. Astana kept an eye on things from behind – far behind – and brought the peloton in some 14 minutes later.
The gold jersey had a scare on the day, as Contador crashed. He reported only soreness in his left shoulder and knee. Mainly, though, the peloton took the day easy and gave themselves a bit of a rest from the strenuous climbing of the previous weekend.
Stage 16 - September 16: Ponferrada - Zamora, 186.4km
If the peloton took it easy on Stage 15, they took it even easier on this stage. The 184km seemed almost unending, as the field finally came into the finish about an hour behind schedule. But if most of the race was slow, the last few kilometers weren't. They belonged again, at last, to the men with the fast legs and none other than Tom Boonen took the mass sprint. It was the Quick Step rider's second stage win in this year's Vuelta, and the last one, as he announced he would drop out soon.
Two riders got away at km 24 and built up a lead of over eight minutes before Paolo Bettini and Quick Step picked up the speed enough to keep the lead at a comfortable three to four minutes. With 10 km to go, the break was over and the speed picked up as the sprinters' teams set things up.
Stage 17 - September 17: Zamora - Valladolid, 148.2km
Another flat stage, another unsuccessful break and another Quick Step sprint win – but this time it was Wouter Weylandt who took the honours. With some 20 km to go, Tom Boonen told Weylandt he was the team's man for the day, and then let himself fall back when the peloton split.
Another duo got away early and built up an eight-minute lead until, as usual the sprinters' teams got to work. This time it was Euskaltel and Silence-Lotto which did most of the chase work. With some 15 km to go, the peloton split, with Boonen and Milram's Erik Zabel being caught in the wrong half. Things came back together, but Zabel suffered a flat which cost him enough time to not be able to make it back up to the front.
Stage 18 - September 18: Valladolid - Las Rozas, 167.4km
The winner of this stage sent everyone scrambling to answer the question, "Who the heck is Imanol Erviti?" The answer is that he is a 24 year-old fourth year pro with Caisse d'Epargne who took his very first pro win by, what else, breaking out of a successful escape group. He crossed the finish line only centimeters ahead of Credit Agricole's Nicolas Roche, who had opened the sprint too early.
This stage's group didn't get away until 50km into the day, and built up the now-standard eight minute lead. The group worked well together until it realized it wouldn't be caught, and then the attacks began. None was successful until David Herrero of Xacobeo took off with four km to go, closely followed by Erviti, Roche and Tinkoff's Vasili Kiryienka. The four were able to sprint for the win, with the peloton coming in nearly seven and a half minutes later.
Stage 19 - September 19: Las Rozas - Segovia, 145.5km
David Arroyo of Caisse d'Epargne took the most controversial win of the Vuelta, easily out-sprinting Tinkoff's Kiryienka, after he let the Belarus rider do most if not all of the lead work the last five kilometers. To add insult to injury, the Spaniard condescendingly said, "I believe the kid was naive, a little innocent." Arroyo, by the way, is about 18 months older than Kiryienka.
The two were part of – you guessed it – a large break group that got away early. This time, however, the gap never got very big, and eventually all the top favourites were able to bridge up to them. On a descent, Julien Loubet of AG2R, Arroyo and Kiryienka took off. The Frenchman was unable to keep up with the other two, and Arroyo sat on the Tinkoff rider's rear wheel before sweeping past his exhausted rival with a few hundred meters left.
Stage 20 - September 20: La Granja de San Ildefonso - Alto de Navacerrada (ITT), 17.1km
Just in case anyone had forgotten who was in charge here, Team Astana reminded them. Leipheimer and Contador finished one-two in the mountain time trial to put their final stamp on the race and cement their standings (in the reverse order) in the overall rankings. The American beat his Spanish captain by 31 seconds,
The other two Spanish riders who had gone into the race as favourites, Valverde and Sastre, also put in good showings. Valverde finished in the same time as Contador, which was enough to push him up into fifth overall. Sastre finished another 31 seconds back, in fourth, which cemented his overall third place.
Stage 21 - September 21: San Sebastián de los Reyes - Madrid, 102.2km
The final stage of the Vuelta went as the final stages of all Grand Tours go: a relaxed ride up until the closing circuit. This was Contador's chance to celebrate his third GT victory in a row in his hometown of Madrid. The stage ended in its usual mass sprint, with CSC-Saxo Bank's Matti Breschel taking it for his team's only victory in the Vuelta. The finish was marred by several crashes near the end.
The final podium was Contador, Leipheimer and Sastre. Silence-Lotto's Greg Van Avermaet held on to the points jersey, and David Moncoutié of Cofidis had earlier secured the mountains jersey. Contador took the combination title, having finished second in points and third in mountains. The team title went to Caisse d'Epargne, which had Valverde fourth overall, Joaquin Rodriguez fifth and Daniel Moreno 12th.