Vino victorious in Vuelta

First Grand Tour for Vinokourov; another stage win for Zabel

It's been a rollercoaster 2006 for Alexandre Vinokourov but both his year and his career reached a high point in Madrid today when the 33 year old Kazakhstani rider won the Vuelta a España. The Astana rider stayed out of trouble and finished in the main bunch, wheeling across the line to the backslaps and congratulations of teammates and fellow professionals.

It was a proud moment for Vino and compatriot Andrey Kashechkin , who stood on the podium with Alejandro Valverde while hearing the Kazakh national anthem playing out to the large, appreciative crowd. Having previously finished third and fifth in the Tour de France, taking his first Grand Tour is a major achievement.

"It was a hard tour," he told Spanish Onda Cero radio afterwards. "A three week tour is always difficult. I am happy this year; things were alright. I felt better every day. The whole team did a good job, so for us it is a good victory.

"Valverde was a great rival for me. I chose good moments to attack him. Overall, I was very happy to ride the Vuelta after not riding the Tour [de France]. It is a revenge for me and it is also a victory for this team."

Valverde was gracious in defeat, despite his disappointment. "I was very close but he won, he was very strong. There was nothing I could do. It was a very nice Vuelta, very cheerful from beginning to end. It is also important that the media talked about cycling [rather than doping - ed.]. It was a great race with a super rhythm and I think the fans liked it."

Zabel strikes again

Apart from Vinokourov, another rider in light blue took his own big victory under the clear skies of the Spanish capital. 36 year-old Erik Zabel showed he is by no means over the hill when he scooped his second stage win of the race, beating points classification victor Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Aurélien Clerc (Phonak Hearing Systems) in the frenzied dash to the line. The German rider salvaged an otherwise disappointing Vuelta for his squad, the Milram riders having lost Alessandro Petacchi when he came off worst in a fistfight with a team bus one week ago.

"I am very happy to win this," he said afterwards. "I had five second places on the final stage of the Tour de France, plus one in Milan (Giro d'Italia) and two in Madrid, so this win means a lot for me.

"The bend before the finish was the most important part of this sprint, you had to be in the right place. I saw Horrillo go after the bend but my team made a big effort to get him back. In particular, Marco Velo was very impressive, and that helped me a lot."

Zabel confirmed that he will head the German team at the World's. "It is a big honour for me to lead the team. I think that the other riders will work very well and I hope we have a great race."

Mixed feelings from Unzue

Valverde did not attempt to take back time on Vino today and consequently finished as runner up, improving on his third place of 2003. This was something which prompted mixed feelings from his Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears directeur sportif Eusebio Unzue.

"For sure we go home with the feeling that we let a big opportunity to win the Vuelta slip away, most of all after we kept the yellow jersey for so many days within the team," he stated. "But, on the other hand, without being really superior, the person [Vinokourov] who won is a very great rider too. He could count on the help of Kashechkin, something that was essential for the victory in this Vuelta.

"Despite the end result, the performance of our Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears team throughout the race was perfect. We failed only once, in the stage that arrived in Granada; we had no rider in the breakaway, something which would have been the solution to the problem we had in the final part of the stage. Alejandro was left alone and needed somebody at his side to chase behind Vinokourov.

"However, we are nevertheless very happy because we won a very nice stage in El Morredero and once more we have finished on the podium of a Grand Tour. We are also very satisfied because of Alejandro's evolution, most of all in the time trial, a discipline that was his weakness in the past. His consistency is also very important and we can look at the future with optimism."

Sastre consistent

Fourth place overall went to Carlos Sastre, who went into the race hoping to fight it out for a win. However riding the Giro in the services of Ivan Basso and then finishing fourth in the Tour de France left him a little short, although he has nevertheless had an excellent season.

"The team was riding for Stuart [O'Grady] today," the friendly Spaniard told Cyclingnews. "We tried to help him for the sprint, it was nice to do. I am happy to finish the Vuelta, for sure. I have had a long season, a hard race, and it is always nice when you finish something like this. After this, I only have the world championships left, that is my last race of the year. Then I will take a nice rest. I am happy."

Fifth place went to José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval) while Discovery's Tom Danielson rounded out the top six, thus improving on his seventh place [post-Heras disqualification] here twelve months ago. Meanwhile Vinokourov also netted the white jersey for the combination classification, winning the award despite finishing level on points with Valverde. Hushovd was a comfortable winner in the points competition, while Egoi Martinez took the King of the Mountains award and Discovery Channel won the teams' classification.

How it unfolded

As is traditional in the Vuelta, the final stage started and finished in the Spanish capital of Madrid. The first record of Madrid as a village was from the ninth century when it was an Arab town. It has been the capital of Spain since 1561 when king Felipe II decided to move the centre of his kingdom from Toledo to Madrid. This city is very close to the geographic centre of Spain. It is nowadays a big city with a lot of economic power in Europe and a very developed tourism industry.

Just 134 of the initial 189 riders survived until the last day of the Vuelta. Unipublic director Ignacio Ayuso gave a medal to the 134 men who endured the 21 days of hard racing before the start of the final stage today.

The stage started in a very calm way, as everyone wanted a relaxed ride early on. It was time to celebrate for Alexandre Vinokourov and his team, and Vino had a golden bike and helmet to match his gold jersey. At the first intermediate sprint in Morata de Tajuña (km 33.1), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) crossed first with Eric Leblacher (Française des Jeux) and Fabien Patanchon (Française des Jeux) on his wheel. After 47 km, Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), Sébastien Rosseler (Quick Step-Innergetic) and Kjell Carlström (Liquigas) mounted the first attack, but were brought back eight kilometres later thanks to the work of the Relax-GAM team.

The Relax boys had a plan, because at the second intermediate sprint in Fuenlabrada (km 66.8), three of them crossed the line to take out all the bonus points: Daniel Moreno was first, while David George was second and Jose Miguel Elias third. Fuenlabrada co-sponsors the team, and it was important for the red jerseys to be at the front there.

The peloton rode into Madrid under the control of Astana, and the pace picked up by the time it reached the first of six six kilometre finishing circuits. It really began moving at km 110 when seven riders attacked the peloton: Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears), Luis Perez and Frederic Bessy (Cofidis), Christopher Horner (Davitamon), Angel Vallejo and Jorge Garcia Marin (Relax) and Pierre Drancourt (Bouygues Telecom). These riders created a small gap for around 30 kilometres, but their maximum lead was only 22 seconds as Credit Agricole, Phonak, Milram, AG2R and Gerolsteiner rode hard behind.

Not surprisingly, the break hung out there until just over a lap (6 km) to go, when the gap was finally closed and the sprinters got themselves ready. CSC wound it up with 4 km to go to get O'Grady into a good position, but then in the final kilometre, Milram and Liquigas performed the lead out for Erik Zabel and Magnus Bäckstedt. A late attack by Rabobank's Pedro Horrillo was unsuccessful, as Milram's train worked to perfection to drop off Zabel with 150m to go. The experienced German kept his wheel in front to the line, winning his second bunch sprint of the Vuelta ahead of points jersey winner Hushovd and Aurélien Clerc (Phonak).

Alexandre Vinokourov finished 79th and got the final maillot oro, the most valuable one of all in Madrid. It was the first grand tour victory for the rider from Kazakhstan, one day after turning 33.

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