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The final day of the Vuelta was one of veteran riders tasting new-found success. The final stage, reportedly watched by a million people, ended in the traditional bunch sprint, where Erik Zabel edged out points competition winner Thor Hushovd for victory. Incredibly, it was the first time the 36-year-old German had won the final stage of a major tour - he had previously taken eight second places in the tours of France, Italy and Spain.
Some way down the pack behind the Milram sprinter, 33-year-old Alexandre Vinokourov was starting to celebrate his first major tour win in his 10th season as a pro. "It's been a hard and complicated race, so I'm very happy with the victory," said the Kazakh. "I felt better every day and in spite of the problems I had on the first mountain stage I managed to recover and get back into contention. My team's help has been fundamental to my success and I have to pay tribute to that again. It's been a great victory over a great rival, Alejandro Valverde."
Vinokourov now hopes to be able to use this Vuelta win as a springboard for further successes at the Worlds next week and the Tour de France next summer. Valverde is certain to be among his main rivals for both titles, particularly in Salzburg next Sunday.
His Caisse d'Epargne team boss, Eusebio Unzue, was disappointed his team came up just short in the second major tour in a row, but is hopeful for the future. "We are going home with the feeling that we let a big opportunity to win the Vuelta escape, particularly after we kept the yellow jersey for so many days," Unzue said.
"But, on the other hand, without being really superior, the rider who won is a very great rider too and he could count on [third-placed Andrei] Kashechkin's help, which was essential for victory in this Vuelta. Despite the final result, the behaviour of our team all through the race was impeccable. We just failed once, in the famous stage into Granada, where we had no rider in the breakaway, which would have been the solution to the problem we had in the final part of the stage when Alejandro was left alone and needed somebody at his side to chase behind Vinokourov.
"But we nevertheless are very happy because we won a great victory in El Morredero and we have finished on the podium of a major tour again. We are also very satisfied because of Alejandro's evolution, most of all in the time trial that was his weakness in the past. His consistency is also very important and we can look at the future with optimism."
Among the hundreds of thousands watching the final stage was Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, who had flown in from the States to see team-mate Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero and his other Phonak team-mates. "I've come here to speak to my lawyers and also to take the chance to say goodbye to my team-mates and the staff at Phonak, because I scarcely had the chance to do this after the Tour," said Landis, who faces being stripped of the Tour title after testing positive for testosterone.
"I am innocent and I believe my lawyers are going to show that, although they are having lots of problems getting information together," he added. "But I would prefer not to talk about that because it is all down to the lawyers."
Stage 21, Madrid-Madrid
1 Erik Zabel (Ger) Team Milram 142km in 3.40.47
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole
3 Aurlien Clerc (Swi) Phonak
4 Robert Frster (Ger) Gerolsteiner
5 Stuart O'Grady (Aus) CSC
6 Francisco Ventoso (Spa) Saunier Duval
7 Fred Rodriguez (USA) Davitamon-Lotto
8 Marco Velo (Ita) Milram
9 Claudio Corioni (Ita) Lampre
10 Davide Vigano (Ita) Quick Step
Final overall standings
1 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 81.23.07
2 Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 1.12
3 Andrei Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana 3.12
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 3.35
5 Jos Angel Gomez Marchante (Spa) Saunier Duval 6.51
6 Tom Danielson (USA) Discovery Channel 8.09
7 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel 8.26
8 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d'Epargne 10.36
9 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Discovery Channel 10.47
10 Luis Perez (Spa) Cofidis 11.32
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