La Bola del Mundo, Spain – Spain's Alberto Contador, racing his first Grand Tour since returning from a two-year doping ban last month, has closed in on his second Tour of Spain crown with only a disaster preventing him from winning.
Russia's Denis Menchov of the Katusha team won the 20th and penultimate stage here on Saturday, with Saxo-Bank rider Contador retaining the red jersey of the overall leader.
Two-time Tour de France winner Contador, who lost his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro titles after being banned for testing positive for clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour, has now to safely negotiate the 21st and final 115km largely flat stage from Cercedilla to Madrid to claim victory.
“Today's stage is one I'll always remember,” said Contador.
“That and the day of Fuente De, where I don't remember having felt such a strong feeling.
This victory is perhaps more beautiful than all the others because of Fuente De – when Contador mastered Wednesday's mountainous stage through northern Spain to take the lead away from compatriot Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez.
“From the start, victory held me at arm's length, I couldn't attain it. But then I played my trump card.”
Contador, 29, added that he was “extremely happy” to have (all but) won just one month after his return to the saddle for competitive racing.
“I have to thank the numerous people who supported me throughout this Vuelta.
“After having spent so much time without racing, I'm really savouring this victory, even though there still remains tomorrow to race.”
Saxo-Bank general manager Bjarne Riis added: “It's fantastic to have finally won the Vuelta when we practically lost it (before Fuente De).
“This Tour of Spain has been lit up by three great riders: Contador, Rodriguez and (Alexander) Valverde.”
A 20-rider breakaway group split from the peloton after 20km of Saturday's stage, but was reduced to just three 10km out from the finish.
Menchov called on all his climbing skills to notch up the stage victory 17sec ahead of Sky's Australian rider Richie Porte, with Belgian Kevin De Weert (Omega-Pharma) a further 25sec adrift.
De Weert had dropped off the pace in the climb, but Menchov was left to see off Porte in a final desperate sprint.
“Today's victory is very important to me,” said Menchov.
“It crowns a fantastic Vuelta for the whole team, with Joaquim's three stage victories before mine, and his podium.”
Contador suffered in the final gruelling ascent, but managed the essential, which was staying atop the overall standings to sit pretty for what should be Sunday's easy going ride-in.
The Spaniard now sits 1min 16sec ahead of compatriot Valverde (Movistar), with Rodriguez (Katusha) in third at 1:37, the duo having taken 19 and 34sec off Contador in the day's stage respectively.
The 21-stage race Ä one of cycling's three 'major tours' along with the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia Ä ends in Madrid on Sunday after covering a total distance of 3,300 kilometres. – Sapa-AFP