Vuelta 21: First Grand Tour win for Valverde

Greipel wins Madrid sprint

Andre Greipel of Team Columbia-HTC won the final mass sprint on the roads of Madrid to close out the Vuelta a Espana with his fourth stage win, but the day belonged to Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d'Epargne.

The Spaniard took home his first Grand Tour win after a controversial season which saw him banned from racing in Italy.

Greipel powered to the sprint victory by two bike lengths ahead of Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Borut Bozic (Vacansoliel).

"It was three long weeks, I am really happy to win the final stage," said Greipel. "Thanks to the team - they carried me through the whole Vuelta, it is a victory for them."

"With two kilometres to go I was a bit far back, but Greg Henderson did a brilliant job taking me through to the front end of the bunch. It was a bit uphill so I waited a little longer than usual for accelerating away for the finish. Everybody in the team helped. I was just the lucky one who got to cross the line in first place."

Team Saxo Bank's Matti Breschel won the final stage in last year's edition, but was unable to repeat that performance as he was ridden into the barricades in the sprint and crashed. His teammate Jakob Fuglsang and Francisco Jose Pacheco (Contentpolis-Ampo) were also delayed by the incident.

"I was feeling really strong today so of course I am extremely disappointed with the way to leave the stage and the race. I knew the recipe from last year and I was in a clearly favourable position and now I'm just annoyed at not being able to show what I feel capable of," said Breschel.

First Grand Tour for Valverde, but could it be his last?

The riders enjoyed a sunny skies and cool weather for the 110.2km circuit through Madrid, largely a parade from Vicalvaro-Madrid to Madrid followed by six rapid-fire circuits destined to end in a sprint as the general classification contenders put their upward ambitions aside after Saturday's time trial.

Valverde was well protected from mishap by his Caisse d'Epargne team, and easily finished in the main group of GC men, 10 seconds behind the sprint. The Spaniard held on to his overall lead, finishing the 2009 Vuelta a Espana with 55 seconds over Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and 1:32 ahead of Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans.

Evans rode well enough in the previous day's time trial to knock Ivan Basso (Liquigas) down to fourth, off the podium at 2:12.

Fifth went to Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia), who had to overcome several crashes during the three-week race to hold on to his top placing. Not so lucky was Dutchman Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who fell from second to sixth place in the final week due to injuries suffered in a crash.

Valverde, who has been chasing Grand Tour success since his first podium finish at the 2003 Vuelta a Espana, was sentimental about taking home the overall win.

"The day I put on my first yellow jersey after the stage of Xorret de Catí, to climb on the podium was a great moment of emotion. From then on my dream was closer each day. I therefore never stop fighting and concentrating, not even for a while."

"To cross the finish line in Madrid with this jersey on my shoulders and know that this Vuelta is now really mine is an emotion that is impossible to describe."

"I learned a lot from the errors I made in the past, but now I showed that I am a rider able to win major three-week tours. In the future I will fight to try and win another one."

The victory crowned a tumultuous year for the 29-year old Valverede. On the plus side, he won the Klasika Primavera and the Volta a Catalunya, although he was unable to repeat his success in the Spring Classics of earlier years. He finished second on the Mont Ventoux stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, which was enough to give him the leader's jersey, and he went on to win the race for the second year in a row.

However, there was also a very large downside to his 2009 season. He has for years been dogged by rumours of involvement in Operación Puerto. Earlier this year, the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) announced that it had matched DNA samples taken from Valverde during the 2008 Giro d'Italia to blood seized in Operación Puerto, and suspended him from competition in Italy for two years.

Valverde has appealed that decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but no decision has yet been made. CONI's action not only kept him out of this year's Giro and all other Italian races, but also the Tour de France, which dipped into Italy for 83 kilometres on stage 16 to Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

The victory was Valverde's first in a Grand Tour in his eight-year career. The Vuelta is the only one in which he has been competitive, having finished second in 2006 and third in 2003 and 2004. He has five stage wins in the race, but none this year.

The Spaniard was never far from the lead in the race, and took over the gold leader's jersey on the ninth stage from Alcoy to Xorret de Cati, and never gave it up again. That stage was typical for him: he stayed easily in the favourites' group up to the end, and at the finale sprinted to catch the bonus seconds for third place.

Once he had the jersey, he dominated the rest of the race. No one came close to knocking him off the throne which he had at long last achieved.

Greipel, Moncoutie claim sprint and climber classifications

The sprints were dominated by Andre Greipel of Columbia-HTC, who mirrored the success which teammate Mark Cavendish enjoyed during the Tour de France. He took home four stage wins, wore the leader's gold jersey for two days and held the green points jersey for much of the race.

"The green jersey was very difficult to get because this was such a mountainous Vuelta, but in the build-up to the sprints I could count on a lot of support from my teammates, and that made all the difference," Greipel said.

"I had the best lead-out of all of the sprinters here, particularly thanks to my teammates Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson. I came to this Tour of Spain thinking I could maybe win one stage, and I came away with four and the team got five. Plus I won the points classification. That's amazing."

He wasn't the only one to win sprints, though, nor even the only German. Gerald Ciolek saved his and his Milram team's season by winning the second stage in Emmen, Netherlands. Borut Bozic of Vacansoliel and Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Slipstream each took one bunch sprint stage win.

Belgian Champion Tom Boonen of Quick Step continued his unlucky year, although he did finish second twice, before abandoning the race during the 13th stage.

France's David Moncoutie (Cofidis) had a fairly easy time winning the mountain jersey. David De La Fuente of Fuji-Servetto put up an early spirited fight, taking the jersey away from his French rival for one day, but Moncoutie took it back on the 11th stage and never let it go.

Moncoutie, 34, cemented his win of the red jersey by taking the victory in stage 13, which finished atop the Sierra Nevada. He had gotten in an early escape group, and attacked out of it on the penultimate climb to solo on to his win.

The result earned him a new contract with his Cofidis team.

Whether or not Valverde will escape full-scale punishment based on the Italian investigation remains to be seen, and if he is banned world-wide, the larger question remains if he will be able to keep his Vuelta a Espana victory on his palmares.

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