Leipheimer and Contador deliver one-two Astana punch

American Levi Leipheimer stomped his way to a second time trial win in the 63rd Vuelta a España and...

GC locked in ahead of sprinters' day in Madrid

American Levi Leipheimer stomped his way to a second time trial win in the 63rd Vuelta a España and looks set as the favourite to beat for next week's World Championships. He bettered his Astana teammate and overall race leader, Alberto Contador, by 31 seconds at the end of a 17.1-kilometre climb up Alto de Navacerrada, but still trails the Spaniard on the overall classification by 46 seconds.

When asked if he could have won the Vuelta under different circumstances, Leipheimer said, "I had no pressure. [Contador] had a lot of pressure in this race. He is Spanish, it's the Tour of Spain. It's impossible to say [if I could have won]. He deserves the victory. I never though about winning the Vuelta [today]. I wanted to win the stage."

Spaniard Contador rode within himself to defend the maillot oro and, barring incident, will win the race's overall after tomorrow's 'sprinters' stage' in Madrid. Leipheimer remains second overall ahead of Spaniard Sastre of Team CSC-Saxo Bank.

With the possible win in Madrid tomorrow, Contador becomes only one of five riders to win all three Grand Tours – joining Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi and Jacques Anquetil. He went from the maillot jaune on Paris' Champs Élysées to the maglia rosa in Milano and on to his final triumph in a period of 14 months.

Contador wasn't thrilled with his performance, but was happy to have put it behind him. "Today my form wasn't like I wanted it to be. I realised fighting for the stage win was difficult, so I just wanted to secure my lead in the overall classification," he said. There was a point when Contador realized he could lose the Vuelta, but he managed to pull just enough strength out to hold on.

"When you suffer, all kinds of thoughts go through your head. My teammate [Leipheimer] was very strong. I was close to my limits, but I also think that when things are difficult you can enjoy the victory even more," Contador said, looking forward to the evening's festivities. "I think today we will have a special dinner, not just the usual pasta and fish...But tomorrow we will do the real fiesta."

Astana begins and ends the stage

Team Astana started the day and ended the day. Dmitriy Muravyev, at 2:45 PM, was the first rider to launch down the start ramp in La Granja de San Ildefonso. He faced a 17.1-kilometre parcours with nearly 700 metres of climbing. The weather was perfect for the stage, with partly cloudy skies and temperatures of 25°C.

Kazakhstan's Muravyev crossed the line in Alto de Navacerrada 37:01 later. The time was a critical reference point for his teammates Contador and Leipheimer later on in the day.

Christophe Kern of Team Crédit Agricole, who featured in stage 13's escape to Alto de l'Angliru, came through to post the early best time. The 27 year-old Frenchman topped Tinkoff's Mikhail Ignatiev and Pavel Brutt with a time of 36:20.

Spain's Rubén Pérez of Euskaltel-Euskadi went well under Kern's time by 1:05. His time of 35:15 ousted Russia's Evgeni Petrov (Tinkoff Credit Systems), Belgium's Dominique Cornu (Silence-Lotto), Ukraine's Andriy Grivko (Team Milram) and fellow Spaniard José Ruiz (Andalucía-Cajasur).

Over to the big guns

The battle for fifth overall in the Vuelta was up for grabs between three riders: Robert Gesink, and Caisse d'Epargne teammates Alejandro Valverde and Joaquím Rodríguez. Gesink held 11 seconds on Valverde and 16 on Rodríguez at the start of the day. The 22 year-old Dutchman had a hard fight against the Spaniards.

The duo had Gesink on the ropes at the nine-kilometre check. Valverde put in 14 seconds one Gesink and Rodríguez 10 seconds, and by the 12-kilometre check, Valverde was 26 second up and Rodríguez only four. They delivered the knockout punch at the top of Navacerrada; Valverde finished third with 33:37 and 1:06 into Gesink and his teammate put 21 seconds into him. Valverde, winner of stage two, claimed fifth, Rodríguez sixth and Gesink slipped to seventh.

"I felt very well and decided to give it all in the time trial," said Valverde, according to a team press release. "The result tells that I was right to do so and the fact that I finished in the same second as Contador is a great satisfaction for me." His time was only tenths of a second off of Contador's ride.

Ezequiel Mosquera of Team Xacobeo Galicia was out to stake a place on the 63rd Vuelta a España's podium. He started the day at 54 seconds off of Carlos Sastre, but lost time on the way to Navacerrada. He was 12 seconds back at kilometre nine, 10 seconds at kilometre 12 and 13 seconds at the finish with a time of 34:21.

Sastre's solid ride over the three weeks and 34:08 on stage 20 allowed him to maintain his third spot overall against an aggressive Mosquera. The latter will go on to represent Team Spain in the World Championships road race next week and Sastre will take a well-earned rest.

Contador and Leipheimer, with the former leading the race by 1:12, faced an internal battle even if neither of them admitted it. Who knows exactly what team orders Johan Bruyneel gave to the two riders in the team bus, but Leipheimer, after coming so close in the 2007 Tour de France, faced another opportunity to win a Grand Tour.

Leipheimer posted fast time checks, but it was not enough. He bettered Contador by 11 seconds at kilometre nine with a time of 10:32 and held 11 seconds at kilometre 12 with 18:21. However, his momentum carried him through to a stage win. His time of 33:06 did not give him the 1:12 gap needed on Contador, but it did ensure that he won the stage when his teammate finished with 33:37.

Leipheimer said that there was no question of who was going to win the Vuelta, even if he made the race closer with his stage win. "Before the race we only spoke about what kind of equipment to use," the American said.. "It was a difficult stage. What kind of wheels, what kind of helmet. Afterwards I told Alberto I am really happy for him. Now he can enjoy the victory because he worked very hard for it."

Critical movements

Marzio Bruseghin of Team Lampre made big movements in the classification with his ride. His time of 34:37 was enough to see him as provisional best until Cofidis' David Moncoutié posted 22 seconds faster. The Italian, whose last win came in the Giro's time trial to Urbino, finished eighth for the day and jumped from 12th to 10th in the overall.

Swiss Oliver Zaugg (Gerolsteiner) and Spaniard Daniel Moreno (Caisse d'Epargne) both dropped back one spot. Zaugg holds 11th and Valverde's teammate is in 12th. Irishman Nicolas Roche of Team Crédit Agricole, second in stage 18, held onto his 13th overall.

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