Sánchez triples on way to final Vuelta podium spot

Menchov easily controls Spanish tour

'Samu' has taken a step onto the final Vuelta a España podium in style. 29 year-old Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) won the 20-kilometre time trial in Villalba by 12 seconds over Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and 14 over Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom) in third. By winning his third stage of the 2007 Vuelta and gaining 19 seconds over Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) he was able to move up onto the podium - a position he should keep when the three-week race concludes tomorrow in Madrid.

The 29 year-old golden jersey Menchov easily maintained his overall lead of over three minutes to Sastre by finishing second in the stage. Barring any incident, he will be crowned king of Spain tomorrow afternoon. Rabobank director Erik Breukink was unaffected by the narrow loss of Menchov on the stage. "Whether second place is a disappointment or a success? It simply does not matter. We are going to win this race. Additionally, we were victorious in four stages, which is great in itself."

Breukink said the weather wasn't responsible for the 12 seconds Menchov lost. "The rainfall was not to our advantage, but it did not affect the race that much, despite the fact that Denis was a little bit shocked by it."

Sánchez was visibly excited and surprised with the third stage win and his podium spot. "One thing came with the other," Sánchez said. "We are really very happy, especially for the podium. The stage wasn't the important thing, but it came too. We had to take the risk by putting pressure on Cadel Evans from the beginning. The goal was the podium. We had already got two stages, and we were very happy considering that.

"I think I haven't reached my top," he continued on his form. "I do it based on working, training a lot, taking care of myself, being very methodical, learning from mistakes. Like Lance Armstrong said the key of success is to be surrounded by the best team."

The rider from Asturias had an impressive Vuelta, and will be considered a hot favourite for the World Championships in one week's time. He won the stage to Granada six days ago by zapping Manuel Beltrán (Liquigas). The seven-year pro did not slow down; in fact, he lit the last 48 hours on fire - burning in flames as bright as the Euskaltel kits.

The team shone brightly through the grimy stage to Alto de Abantos. The Basque boys worked in unison to setup for Sánchez's win, including a loud thumping by Igor Antón. The young and upcoming rider helped his team leader dominate. However, today it was all down to 'Samu' and his TT machine. He made no errors. He powered his Orbea bike through the time checks (13th at km 7.3 and first at km 15), and on to the finish in a mode that sent shivers down the competition's back, especially Cadel Evans'.

The 30 year-old Australian is normally a better time trialist, but today he could not hold back his number one competitor from gaining the needed 10 seconds on his way to his second-ever victory against the clock. Evans never really found the form that he was hoping for during the three week tour, often suffering to hold on during the mountains. The race of truth proved the form was not quite there. He struggled to get his sixth spot, 19 seconds back.

Maybe it was the trip to China to preview the 2008 Olympic parcours, or the gas that he used to motor to an impressive second spot in the Tour de France. As long as the 'sprint stage' into Madrid goes as it should Evans will finish in fourth overall, 3'56" back on the overall, 10 seconds back from the podium spot of Sánchez.

Dutch TT champion Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom) almost won the day with his powerful ride of 22'25". It held for almost one hour, until the GC guns starting shooting it out. The 24 year-old, third today, could have a better chance in next weeks Worlds.

Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) stayed cool in his time trial run, coming to the line to finish 15th in Villalba. He easily maintained his second overall as Evans faded. He will ride towards home tomorrow in the stage that finishes in Spain's capital as a happy man. He did what he could do to win this Vuelta but could not match the form of Menchov. Once the Russian gained the jersey oro on stage nine there was no way to pull it out of his clutch.

"I fought as much as I could," Sastre said of his second overall to Menchov. "I had all the support of my whole team all those days which were special. ... They [the team-mates] did everything I asked them at their very best. I can't ask for more.

"This year I worked a lot in the wind tunnel to take a new position," he remarked on his time trial position. "After all the work before the Tour de Suisse, the UCI changed the rules, and all this work was wasted. I had no choice but to retake the position I had last year, because it was the last one I studied and practiced. I told the mechanics to put the bike in the same position as last year, and that we would see."

He had an emotional day. "I have to thank the fans for helping me re-animate this rider [Sastre - ed.] who I wasn't with the loss of my brother-in-law [famous climber José María 'Chaba' Jiménez - ed.]. Today just before the start I remembered his last Vuelta a España, and how much fans loved him. Just before starting, when the fans clapped their hands, it made me remember those moments I lived beside him. I am happy to take his place [in the fans' hearts]."

The only other GC shift in the top 20 was thanks to the ride of Chris Anker Sørensen (Team CSC). The rider from Denmark put in a ride good enough to leap frog over Ludovic Turpin (Ag2r Prévoyance), moving from 20th to 19th.

How it unfolded

Collado Villalba is a town northwest of capital city Madrid, in the middle of Sierra de Guadarrama. Villalba hosted a Vuelta individual time trial before in 1986 and 1988. Both times Ireland's Sean Kelly won the stage.

Xabier Zandio (Caisse d'Epargne) didn't take the start because he wanted to see his wife and his daughter who was born recently. The first rider to race against the clock was Australia's Mark Renshaw (Crédit Agricole) who was the 146th and last in the general classification. He started at 14:07. But the first reference was made by the Swede Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas) in 22 minutes and 51 seconds.

Later on, Spain's Santos Gonzalez (Karpin Galicia) proved he is a good time trial specialist and clocked 22 minutes and 29 seconds, 22 seconds faster than Backstedt. Gonzalez's time didn't last long as minutes later, Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom) came home with the best time. He passed three riders on the way to clocking 22 minutes and 25 seconds.

The big battle came among the top four. Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) was nine seconds ahead of Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the GC before today's start. The rider from Asturias was one second slower than Clement at the first intermediate point a kilometre 7.5 (Clement clocked 7'45" and Sanchez 7'46") while the Australian timed seven minutes and 50 seconds. Later on, Sastre rode in 7'55" and Menchov in 7'37" beating everyone, and proving the Russian also rides well against the clock.

At the second intermediate sprint (kilometre 15), Samuel clocked the best time at 16'55"; Evans kept losing more time as he clocked 17'08". Sastre crossed the second point in 17'23", Menchov started losing seconds, and Sánchez timed 16'57".

At the finish line (kilometre 20), the trends increased. The rider in orange culminated his impressive work in 22 minutes and 11 seconds. It seemed his motivation was big, and it made him ride at a quick pace. Evans looked exhausted at this point of the season after riding the Tour de France and other tough competitions. The Aussie clocked 22'30", losing the third place in the GC. Later on, Sastre timed 22'52" and Menchov 22'23".

Stage 21 - September 23: Rivas Vaciamadrid - Madrid, 104.2km

Madrid will host the finish of the Vuelta for the 63rd time on September 23 and it is here that the sprinters will have their last chance to shine while the wearer of the jersey oro will be able to parade in his prized jersey. After starting in Rivas Vaciamadrid the stage ends with five circuits in Madrid.

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