The two men for whom the 2012 Vuelta a Espana will be most memorable completed victories on the final stage.
John Degonkolb (Argos-Shimano) snatched a fifth stage win and Alberto Contador sealed overall victory in his comeback Grand Tour.
Contador’s victory, earned as the result of an astonishing solo victory on 17 after nearly three weeks of relentless attacking, proved popular in his home city of Madrid, where this year’s 3,360 odyssey across Spain terminated in glorious autumn sunshine.
The Spaniard had only returned to racing two months earlier after serving a few short months of a backdated, two-year doping suspension, issued after interminable wranglings begun shortly after a positive sample given on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour de France.
Contador’s victory in that race, and a subsequent victory in the 2011 Giro d’Italia, have been struck from the records, but as he crossed the line in Madrid, El Pistolero held up all the fingers of his left hand and two fingers of his right indicated seven Grand Tour victories, an unconsciously ironic echo of Lance Armstrong’s celebration of his seventh Tour de France ‘victory’.
Contador said: “I put myself under so much pressure that right now I feel as if I was set free. I’m very pleased both with my effort and accomplishment and with the people who are thanking me for this spectacle, when in fact it’s me that should be thanking them. It’s been a wild and unpredictable Vuelta and I think it’s one of the greatest races in a long time.
“One thing I know for sure, winning gives you more confidence and it drives you to win again. If not, you’ve always got that niggling doubt. Now, I will be aiming at taking part in the team time trial at the World Championships, the individual time trial and the road race.”
He shared the podium with countrymen, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who returned from a two-year doping suspension in January after being implicated in the Operacion Puerto affair, and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). The three men had conducted a magnificent race in which each had taken every opportunity to go on the offensive. Valverde fought to the finish, crossing the line sixth in Madrid, among the sprinters, to take the points jersey from Rodriguez on the final stage.
The final stage belonged to the sprinters, specifically to Degenkolb, the sprinter of the race. The young German matched Peter Sagan’s five stage victories in the Tour of California, his victory on the final stage coming again at the expense of Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek), who claimed stage 18 from Britain’s Ben Swift (Team Sky) by the narrowest of margins.
Swift crossed the line nineteenth in Madrid, far from contention, despite the efforts of teammate and British road race champion, Ian Stannard, to drag him into position. The finish completed a frustrating Vuelta for the young Yorkshireman, who, in the absence of Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen, rode as the team’s designated sprinter.
Another Team Sky rider racing in the privileged position of protected rider for the first time, Chris Froome, finished fourth overall, more than 10 minutes down on Contador. The Kenyan-born Brit, so effective in his role of super domestique for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France, finishing second on GC to his team leader, was outgunned by El Pistolero and his two amigos in the Vuelta, despite his valiant efforts.
He said: “It’s slightly disappointing not to come away with more – obviously we had high ambitions coming here.”
“It’s been a huge learning process. I think there’s so much we can take away from this race. Personally, I now know where my limits are in terms of doing two Grand Tours back to back. I know a lot more about the competition that wasn’t at the Tour de France this year and will be at future editions and races next year. For me it’s been the first time leading the team and being in a position where I need to tell the guys around me what I need to get me though the race as best as possible.”
Vuelta a Espana stage 21 – result
1) John Degenkolb (GER) – Argos-Shimano – 2.44.57
2) Elia Viviani (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale- ST
3) Daniele Bennati (ITA) – Radioshack-Nissan-Trek
4) Allan Davis (AUS) – Orica-GreenEdge
5) Koldo Fernandez (SPA) – Garmin-Sharp
6) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar
7) Gert Steegmans (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
8) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
9) Raymond Kreder (NED) – Garmin-Sharp
10) Gorka Verdugo (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi
1) Alberto Contador (SPA) – Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank – 84:59:49
2) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar +1.16
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (SPA) – Katusha +1.37
4) Christopher Froome (GBR) – Team Sky + 10.16
5) Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team +11.29
6) Robert Gesink (NED) – Rabobank +12.23
7)Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +13.28
8) Laurens Ten Dam (NED) – Rabobank +13.41
9) Igor Anton (SPA) – Euskaltel-Euskadi +14.01
10) Benat Intxausti (SPA) – Movistar +16.13