Birthday boy Vino does it again

Third stage win tightens Vinokourov's hold on maillot oro

Several studies in the past have shown a link between birthdays and sporting success, illustrating that big performances can occur around that particular time of the year. Race leader Alexandre Vinokourov underlined that theory today when he celebrated the day in perhaps the most memorable way of his life, winning the final time trial of the Vuelta a España and in doing so, cementing the first Grand Tour win of his career.

Historically, the now 33 year-old Kazakhstani rider has had a better track record that closest challenger Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) in races against the clock, and that form continued in the 27.5 kilometre test to Rivas Vaciamadrid. Vinokourov was marginally behind his rival at the first time check but had moved into pole position by the second, leading the Spaniard by 12 seconds. He then took a further second per kilometre out of him on the seven mainly uphill clicks to the line, finishing the day 1'12 ahead overall.

Valverde took third in the test while a surprising second place went to stage 13 victor Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), who was just six seconds back. The 28 year old is a proven climber who has now metamorphosed into a time trial rider and, by virtue of this and his seventh place overall, can now aim for high GC results in the future.

Vinokourov was quietly satisfied with his win. "This is a good birthday present," he smiled at the post race press conference. "The date means I was very motivated this morning to win the stage, it is a good present for me. I was very relaxed before this time trial and it has worked out well."

Vinokourov said that he will now aim for a strong ride in the world championships, then end his season. He then added that in light of what happened in July, this victory has greater significance for him.

"We missed the Tour de France because in the end, we did not have the required number of riders," he said. "It was a big pity for me and my team, especially as two of them, Paulinho and Contador, were cleared afterwards.

"That was not very fair for us but we concentrated on continuing the season. This victory is a bit of revenge and it shows I can ride at a very high level in a Grand Tour. It is important for me, but also for our sponsor, the sport at home and the country of Kazakhstan. It makes this a good season."

Alejandro Valverde started the day with an outside chance of victory but it was not to be. "The course was harder that what was said beforehand. In the morning I followed Txente García Acosta while he rode his race, with me sitting in the car next to Eusebio Unzue. I immediately realized the difficulty of the course. It was necessary to do it all at top speed.

"I started very quick, which allowed me to make the best time in the first intermediate point. After that I went a bit slower but Vinokourov demonstrated again how strong he is. I know that he turns 33 years of age today, so in this Vuelta I missed that sort of experience."

He has however a lot of hope for the future. "The result I obtained today encourages me a lot as regard my future in the Grand Tours because it is more proof than I have improved a lot in this specialty, and that the result obtained in the time trial of Cuenca was not due to chance. Now I am going to concentrate on the World Championships in Salzburg. I do not believe that the efforts I made in the Vuelta will have a negative effect because I finish the race feeling pretty good, even if the last week was a very hard one."

Samuel Sanchez told Onda Cero radio that he had help as regards his abilities against the clock. "I did very well in the whole time trial, especially because of Igor [Gonzalez de Galdeano, his trainer in the team]. He has taken me on in a phenomenal way. He is truly a very influential person for me this year and I think he will be decisive in my sporting career. He saw I had good legs and he knew perfectly how I should take it."

He looks set to finish seventh overall in the race. "It was very good for me and for my team. It is going phenomenally. I arrived at the Vuelta willing to step in the podium but well… I am just four positions away from it. It was a great race for me because I also got a stage win.

Battle for podium basically over

Andrey Kashechkin started the day third overall and although he conceded six places and 22 seconds to Carlos Sastre (CSC), seventh today, he had more than enough to stay ahead of his Spanish rival in the overall standings. Sastre will start tomorrow's final stage 24 seconds back and told Spain's Onda Cero radio that he was unlikely to make up the lost time.

"I tried hard. I cannot give up until the last day, although tomorrow I don't think I will get in the bonus points [positions]. I was willing to do it well today overall to go home satisfied that I gave everything in this Vuelta. That I fought. That's important for me.

"I felt good today," he continued. "I am happy because I think I was able to keep a high level during the whole time trial and for me, that's important. I am happy with what I did; I am happy with my Vuelta a España and I am happy with how my team helped me.

After taking fourth in the Tour de France and then wearing the maillot oro after the first stage here, Sastre had hoped to be fighting for the win. It was not to be, and he complimented Vinokourov on what seems to be an almost certain victory tomorrow.

"He started the 'motorcycle' the first weekend and he didn't turn it off yet… Vinokourov reached the Vuelta very well and I think he is a super strong rider. We must congratulate him because he fought, he worked very hard and he was the best."

Vino said he was happy with Kashechkin's performance. "I've known him for eight years. I think he is my natural successor. He helped me a lot in this race and I am very happy because he also rode strongly here."

Discovery Channel's Tom Danielson finished 11th in the test, 58 seconds behind GC rival Sanchez, but held onto his overall position. "It has been a good Vuelta for me, although there have been lows as well as the high of my stage win," he said. "I didn't lose my sixth place today, so that is good."

How it unfolded

Rivas Vaciamadrid is a very new town near the Spanish capital, Madrid. Rivas Vaciamadrid is a result of the merging of two towns: Rivas de Jarama and Vaciamadrid. Both villages joined together in 1954. Supposedly, the town is the fastest growing town in Europe over the last 20 years.

The first rider to take the start was Cyril Lemoine (Credit Agricole) at 11.33 am local time. Lemoine had the worst time among the 135 survivors of the Vuelta, and he did the 27.5 kilometres in 36 minutes and 8 seconds. But the first decent time was Sebastien Rosseler’s (Quick.Step) solid performance in 34 minutes and 39 seconds.

Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole) bettered everyone’s times as he clocked 34’05 to finish the stage. Scot David Millar (Saunier Duval), who won the previous individual time trial in Cuenca, couldn’t beat Bodrogi’s time as he finished in 34’44. Stuart O’Grady (CSC) was also among the best at that point of the day. The Aussie completed the course in 34 minutes and 11 seconds, and eventually finished sixth.

As more and more riders finished, no-one was able to beat Bodrogi’s time, but the main GC contenders were still to start. At 14:06 local time, race leader Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) was the last to set off, with the advantage of knowing all the time checks of his closest rivals.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) was giving it everything and started out at a blistering pace. The Spaniard had the best time at the first intermediate check (km 11.3) with 14'18. But Vino fought back and was just 3 seconds slower than Valverde at that point, as the latter started to pay for his early effort. By the second time check (km 20.5), the race leader was 12 seconds up on Valverde, and it was clear that the battle for the general classification was over, with Vinokourov a strong candidate for the stage win.

Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) surprised everyone and bettered Bodrogi’s time by a full 20 seconds in 33'45. He was expected to do a good time but not to do this well against the likes of Millar and the other specialists.

Valverde continued fighting and finished his ride in 33'58. His time was good, considering that this is not his specialty. But Vino hadn’t finished yet. The rider from Kazakhstan maintained his magnificent tempo and beat everyone with 33 minutes and 39 seconds. Thus, Vinokourov won the stage from Samuel Sanchez and Valverde, and the Vuelta is virtual his. Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) didn't perform brilliantly and finished 13th (1’06 slower than his teammate) while Carlos Sastre (CSC) did a decent time trial and ended up 7th (44 seconds slower). Despite this, Kashechkin was able to keep his third place on the overall podium.

Vinokourov is set to finish a tremendous Vuelta, improving each day. His first week was fair, although he lost a few minutes in the first mountain stage; his second week was very good, and his third was outstanding. The Astana rider was just one stage left for his first ever Grand Tour win.

Stage 21 – September 17: Madrid-Madrid, 142.2 km

This will be the traditional last stage in Madrid. There will be two intermediate sprints: in Morata de Tajuña (km 33.1) and Fuenlabrada (km 66.8). The riders will race six laps of a circuit in downtown Madrid. It should be a calm stage for Vinokourov, who can then celebrate his deserved overall victory with champagne or cava, the well known Spanish alcoholic drink.

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