Peter Sagan's Vuelta a España debut got even better as the Liquigas-Cannondale rider made it three stage wins in this year's edition by beating Italian sprinters Alessandro Petacchi and Daniele Bennati in the final stage through Madrid this afternoon.
The 21-year-old Slovakian sprung from nowhere in the finale and cheekily swept under the drag race between Petacchi and Bennati to take another stage win in his first grand tour and indicate that he'll be a man to watch at the UCI Road World Championships later this month in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The man upon which all eyes focused as the peloton swept into Madrid was Juan José Cobo however, the unexpected leader and champion elect of the Vuelta a España enjoying the limelight with a little fanfare and plenty of satisfaction.
That's because it's been a long and arduous journey for Cobo, the man who was considered one of Spain's best prospects for stage race victory just three years ago when he finished second to Leonardo Piepoli on the Hautacam stage of the Tour de France while riding for the now-defunct Saunier Duval squad (he was later awarded the stage when Piepoli tested positive for CERA).
Since then he's been embroiled in controversy surrounding that team, fallen into obscurity and even considered retirement several months ago; on Sunday afternoon that was the last thing on his mind.
"I've passed through some bad moments the past few months, but now I see things differently. You realise that hard work and sacrifice are worth it – this win makes up for the suffering that I've gone through on the bike," Cobo said.
After terrific performances in stage 14 and 15 to La Farrapona. Lagos de Somiedo and Anglirú, respectively, Cobo defended the red jersey with gusto until the final day, which took riders into the heart of Madrid. He celebrated with that leader's jersey, where 12 months earlier Vincenzo Nibali had stood, the latest champion of the Vuelta a España.
Following his win on the Anglirú, Cobo told reporters "The objective was to take time on Wiggins and things turned out better than expected. We will defend to the death, but when you're in the lead, things are easier."
And so it was, his Geox-TMC teammates often riding at the front of the race to shut down any potential threats to Cobo's lead and the 30-year-old himself did everything he could – successfully – to prevent Team Sky's Chris Froome usurping his advantage on the stage to Peña Cabarga.
By race's end, his margin of victory was just 13 seconds over Chris Froome, with the Brit's Team Sky stablemate Bradley Wiggins in third, 1:39 behind Cobo. Bauke Mollema recorded his best grand tour result with fourth and Cobo's teammate Denis Menchov took fifth.
Making their way to Madrid
At only 94km, the final stage of this year's Vuelta was a procession, to say the least, and after a tough three weeks the Spanish capital was a sight for sore eyes within the peloton.
Having made the ceremonial entrance into the city it was time to get on with some racing, and subsequently various groups tried their luck getting away from the bunch until a selection of just three was made with about 58km remaining.
The trio consisted of Joan Horrach (Katusha), Damiano Caruso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Jose Alberto Benitez (Andalucia Caja Granada), although a solid group of pursuers had assembled behind, with a thundering peloton – led by the vigilant men of Geox-TMC – keeping a close eye on the leaders.
Facing the final 50km of this year's race, the break had itself 32 seconds over the peloton and it looked unlikely that the plucky trio was ever going to get much more than that. Ten clicks later and that proved to be the case as the gap sat at 51 seconds, the main field keeping the escapees on a short leash.
With 26km left in the 63rd Vuelta a España, the break led by 50 seconds, a sprint finish never in doubt as the likes of Lampre-ISD, Leopard Trek and Saxo Bank-Sungard ensured that the gap wouldn't stretch too far and they could set up their fast men for a dash to the line.
And with just 11km remaining it was Horrach who held out the last piece of resistance, having left Caruso and Benitez behind the local lad was content to carry on until the peloton deemed his time out front over and set up the final sprint to the line.
That time would come some nine kilometres from home, the pace lifting dramatically thanks to the work of Lampre-ISD and Leopard Trek, the squads of Italian sprinters Alessandro Petacchi and Daniele Bennati toiling to try and take one last win from the Vuelta.
Aiding in their cause was Saxo Bank-Sungard, with Juan José Haedo waiting in the wings for another crack at glory; it wasn't much match for Stuart O'Grady and Leopard Trek's effort, which was gargantuan in the final three kilometres.
As the sprint opened Sagan still hadn't shown his figure and as Petacchi and Bennati went to the left, the Slovakian sprung into the middle of the road, accelerating impressively to grab another win, much to the disappointment of the experienced Italian duo.
Little noticed in the mix just behind was Mollema, who was helped to ninth on the stage by his Rabobank teammates and therefore took the green points jersey from Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha.
David Moncoutie (Cofidis) strolled in two minutes after the stage winner, his polka dot climber's jersey wrapped up the day before.
With now three Grand Tour champions in its midst, the Geox-TMC squad earned the title of best team, with race winner Cobo also netting the win in the combination classification. The performance of the Spanish underdogs will go a long way toward helping the team climb up the UCI's overall rankings for the 2012 WorldTour selection.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com