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Welcome back to the last day of the Vuelta, and the end of this year's Grand Tours! It has been an interesting journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain, and this afternoon we will crown our winner.
Today's ride will only be 110 km, an easy ride for those tired legs.
The race has now started, with all 139 riders taking to this final stage.
We have some sad news for you today. Saxo Bank and British national team rider Jonathan Bellis, 21, is in critical condition with head injuries following a motor scooter accident in Italy Saturday morning. More here: www.cyclingnews.com/news/bellis-in-hospital-after-scooter-crash
"We are saddened by the news of Jonathan's accident, but we know that he is in good hands at the hospital in Florence. Our thoughts and hopes go out to Jonathan, his family and friends", said Saxo Bank team owner Bjarne Riis.
Back to the race: Today's stage ends with six laps of a six-km course in downtown Madrid. There are a few bumps in the first two-thirds of the stage, but nothing approaching a serious climb. There are also two sprints underway.
We see the usual scenes of the last day of a Grand Tour: everyone is quite relaxed and there is a lot of friendly chatting going on. A number of riders are making their way to Alejandro Valverde to congratulate him.
Our Shane Stokes is in Madrid, and tells us he sees blue skies covered in light hazy clouds. It is supposed to only get up to 23° Celsius, which should make a lovely day for cycling.
Stokes talked to several riders today before the start. Cadel Evans said 'I was pretty satisfied to make up the time and get to the podium. It's better than 2007, when I missed out by ten seconds. Now I'm looking forward to getting home and seeing my wife, then will focus on the world championships. The course should be good for me, and I think there will be a real selection there."
We're down to 139 riders out of the 198 we had at the start. Four teams still have all nine riders in the race: Euskaltel-Euskadi, Caisse d'Epargne, Cofidis, and Liquigas.
Four teams are particularly hard hit, having lost five riders each. That leaves them with only four riders left: Bbox Bouygues Telecom, Garmin-Slipstream, Lampre, and Quick Step.
Matthew Lloyd of Silence-Lotto told Stokes, "I'm starting to feel like my old self after my crash earlier this year but I'll keep working on it in the off-season. It takes a while to get back to 100%. I'll do the worlds, hope to ride well in a couple of races after that including Lombardia, then will finish the season and head home for a break."
Twelve teams have won stages here this year. Columbia leads, with four wins, (Henderson and three-times Greipel) and Garmin is second with three (Farrar, Hesjedal and Millar).
Three teams have two wins each: Saxo Bank (two Cancellara), Lampre (two Cunego) and Cervelo (Garrans and Deignan).
Stokes also talked to Garmin's Dan Martin: "The Vuelta was a lot harder than I thought it will be but it should stand to me for the future. I felt very good on Friday when I was in the break but unfortunately we didn't get enough of a gap to stay clear."
We are not forgetting to report on the race: it's just that there is nothing happening. The real race today won't start until the Madrid circuit starts, and the sprinters start sniffing victory.
The ProTour teams weren't the only ones to take stage wins here. Professional Continental teams Cervelo, Vacansoleil and Xacobeo also took stages.
Alejandro Valverde can now turn his sights to winning the Tour de France, but a roadblock may be Alberto Contador, who is considering joining the team. Would this be a problem, given that Contador is the dominant Grand Tour rider at the moment? Not in the least, Caisse d'Epargne DS Alfonso Galilea told Cyclingnews: www.cyclingnews.com/news/caisse-depargne-says-harmony-between-valverde-and-contador
Stokes says that he finds this year's Vuelta has been much cooler than in previous years. There were a few hot days, but not as many as usual, and it got quite cool a couple of days as the race headed back north.
Looking at individual stage winners, the leader is Andre Greipel of Columbia, who has won three sprints. He is followed by Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) with two each.
Our stage winners come from 13 different countries. Germany leads with four stages, thanks to Greipel's three wins, plus one from Milram's Gerald Ciolek. Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and France got two each. That leaves us with one each for New Zealand, Slovenia, Australia, USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland and Great Britain.
Borut Bozic already has one Vuelta stage win to his credit, and would like to have another one. The Vacansoleil Slovenian has his eye on today's finale in Madrid, he told Cyclingnews: www.cyclingnews.com/news/bozic-keeps-fingers-crossed-for-bunch-gallop
The peloton is really whipping along here today, averaging all of 29.3 km/h for the first hour. Perhaps some of them ought to remember that they have planes to catch this evening?
For the last time, let's take a look at who is leading in which classification. Alejandro Valverde, of course, leads the overall ranking. He is 55 seconds ahead of Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Eusakadi). Yesterday Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) jumped into third place (1:32), knocking Ivan Basso of Liquigas into fourth at 2:12. Ezequiel Mosquera of Xacobeo is fifth (4:27) and Rabobank's Robert Gesink is sixth (6:40).
The points classification is the only one which could possibly change today. Andre Greipel has a 12 point lead over Valverde, with Cadel Evans third. But it seems reasonable to expect that Greipel will finish ahead of Valverde in a mass sprint this afternoon, so that the German will most likely take the green jersey home with him.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis) wrapped up the mountains ranking rather easily. His 186 points are far above number two David De La Fuenta (Fuji), who has only 99 points. Third is Julian Sanchez of Contentpolis.
Italy's Giovanni Visconti (ISD) won Italy's GP Prato Sunday in a sprint ahead of Mattia Gavazzi (Diquigiovanni) and Luca Paolini (Acqua & Sapone).
The 64th GP Prato started and ended in Tuscany's Prato, west of Firenze. The 178.6-kilometre course took in nine climbs of the Carmignano (190m), with the last one coming 24.7 kilometres to race.
Ukrainian Mikhaylo Khalilov (Ceramica Flaminia) won the race in 2008.
Valverde will add another jersey to his collection: the combination classification. He leads this one over Sanchez and Mosquera.
The team classification goes to the Spanish Professional Continental team of Xacobeo-Galicia. They beat all the big boys, with Caisse d'Epargne second at 23:43, and Astana third at 31:23.
The Vuelta started outside of Spain this year for only the second time ever, and travelled all the way up to the northern Netherlands. After a 4-day sojourn through the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, the race returned to Spain.
Hmm, is that allowed? A Columbia rider and a motorcycle driver have swapped places. But we suspect it was only for a few minutes. We hope so, anyway!
Valverde is a busy man, much in demand. He is currently holding a conversation on his mobile phone as he rides along.
A fan tries to keep up with the peloton on foot, but finds out he can't keep up the speed.
What does our overall leader Valverde have to say about things? "I feel like I have been liberated because I have won this race without having the single bad day most riders get in a big Tour."
The field is aproaching the first intermediate sprint of the day, and Team Columbia appears near the front, so that Greipel can get those points.
It looks like Columbia took the points, but not necessarily Greipel.
The bad news is that it is clouding up and we may have rain at the end of the stage.
Many of the riders are taking great liberties with the traffic circles, and going around them and the traffic islands any which way.
If someone is first, then someone must also be last. Our last-place finisher is Damien Gaudin of Bbox Bouygues Telecom, who is 3:27:50 down. But, hey, he made it to the finish, which a lot of other didn't do!
It's hard to believe, but yesterday's time trial win was David Millar's first win since the British time trial title in 2007. "For the team it's not so important because we've already had two stage victories in the Tour of Spain, one of them in the toughest mountain stage,” he said. "But I'm very proud of this win. I've been on the hunt for it all year.
We'll be in Madrid in about another 20 km. Maybe then things will start happening......
Several riders take time for a nature break before they head into the big city.
Happy Birthday today to Vladimir Karpets of Caisse d'Epargne and Gustav Erik Larsson of Saxo Bank, both of whom are turning 29 today. Neither of them is at the Vuelta, so we hope they are enjoying their birthday cakes with their loved ones.
Valverde is in yellow and gold from head to foot: helmet, jersey, pants, gloves, glasses and socks. But not the shoes.
The field disappears into a tunnel under an intersection, but fortunately they come out the other end again.
Bingen Fernandez of Cofidis leads the way into the next tunnel. He is saying good bye to the Vuelta today, at least as a rider. The 36-year-old is retiring from riding the end of this season, at least as a rider. He will stay with the sport, though, making his debut as a directeur sportif with Garmin-Slipstream next year.
The peloton is letting Fernandez have his moment, as he continues in the lead.
And he is the first to cross the finish line. Now the peloton will start on its laps of the closing circuit.
Fernandez keeps looking back, thinking, "Where are they?"
The field makes a u-turn and heads back in the opposite direction. About half of them stayed on the road, while the others cut a metre or two of their route by taking the pedestrian crossing.
Fernandez continues on alone in the lead. Nothing is happening behind him. The race has not yet really started.
Fernandez thanks his colleagues as they absorb him back into the peloton. Immediately the first attacks come.
Fiver riders have jumped. We will work on getting their names.
Young Dominik Roels of Team Milram has been very active in the Vuelta, and is in fact right now giving chase to the escapees. He has been rewarded for his efforts: A Milram spokesman has just told us exclusively that the team has extended its contract with Roels for the 2010 season.
Columbia moves to the head of the peloton to lead the chase.
Damien Monier (COF), Manuel Vazquez (MCO), Rémy Di Gregorio (FDJ), Mickael Delage (SIL), David Garcia Dapena (KGZ) and Dominik Roels (MRM) are those in the lead.
The break group crosses the finish line again with a slight lead over the peloton.
The field makes that u-turn again. This time the pedestrian crossing is blocked by motorcycles.
Once more over the finish line for the escapees, with a lead of 23 seconds. Three more laps to go.
Caisse d'Epargne, Columbia and Liquigas are leading the chase -- the usual suspects.
Belated birthday greetings to Gerald Ciolek of Milram, who turned 23 yesterday, and Lampre's Damiano Cunego, who is now 28. Both riders were in the Vuelta, but have abandoned.
The gap is holding steady around the 21 second mark.
Things are really moving along now. The break group is once more over the finish line, with the peloton 22 seconds back. Still two laps to go. When will the peloton step on the gas?
Bad luck for Columbia: Marcel Sieberg has flatted. He is one of Greipel's main supports. The big man is quickly back in the peloton, so hopefully he will be in position to help in the finale.
Once more at the u-turn for the peloton, and the gap has now shrunk to 13 seconds.
We see Sieberg back near the front of the peloton again.
The peloton is now spread out single file as it flies along.
Columbia has moved firmly into the lead now.
The last lap is now on. The gap is only10 seconds or so.
Our six leaders aren't giving up, but the don't have much chance left.
Cervelo has now moved to the front of the peloton.
That's it -- the flight is over. And they all take that u-turn for the final time.
A Lotto rider has a slight lead.
But no more.
Vacansoliel and Liquigas now lead the group.
They are now riding at up to 74km/h.
Greipel is fairly far back. Will he be able to move up and take his fourth stage win?
Quick Step tries to attack and splits the field.
The sprint is open!
Bennati and Matti Breschel both gave it their best, but there is no one better here than Andre Greipel. He takes his fourth win.
There was a crash involving three or four riders near the finish line.
Greipel pointed proudly to his green jersey as he crossed the finish line a good two bike lengths ahead of his nearest rival.
Second place went to Daniele Bennati of Liquigas, with Vacansoliel's Bozic third
The biggest winner, of course, is Alejandro Valverde, who has won the 2009 Vuelta a Espana.
Our top ten on the stage:
André Greipel (Ger) Columbia-HTC
Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas
Borut Bozic (Slo) Vacansoleil
Leonardo Duque (Col) Cofidis
Enrico Gasparotto (Ita) Lampre-NGC
Gregory Henderson (NZl) Columbia-HTC
Tom Leezer (Ned) Rabobank
Paul Voss (Ger) Milram
Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Silence-Lotto
And the final general classification:
1 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
2 Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:00:55
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto 0:01:32
4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas 0:02:12
5 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Xacobeo Galicia 0:04:27
6 Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank 0:06:40
7 Joaquím Rodríguez (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0:09:08
8 Paolo Tiralongo (Ita) Lampre-NGC 0:09:11
9 Philip Deignan (Irl) Cervélo TestTeam 0:11:08
10 Juan José Cobo (Spa) Fuji-Servetto 0:11:27
That's it! The Vuelta is over! Thanks for joining us on this journey through the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain.
We're not through for the season though: join us again on Wednesday as we take on the World Championships.