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 of the tour 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 d’Italia titles after being banned for testing positive for clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour de France, 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,” Contador said.
“That and the day of Fuente De, where I don’t remember having felt such a strong feeling,” he added referring to when he mastered Wednesday’s mountainous stage through northern Spain to take the lead away from compatriot Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez.
Contador, 29, added that he was “extremely happy” to have all but won a major tour just one month after his return to the saddle for competitive racing.
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 skills to notch up the stage victory 17 seconds ahead of Sky’s Australian rider Richie Porte, with Belgian Kevin De Weert (Omega-Pharma) a further 25 seconds 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,” Menchov said.
Contador suffered in the final grueling ascent, but managed the essential, which was staying atop the overall standings.
The Spaniard now sits 1 minute and 16 seconds ahead of compatriot Valverde (Movistar), with Rodriguez (Katusha) in third at 1:37, the duo having taken 19 seconds and 34 seconds off Contador in the Saturday’s stage respectively.
The 21-stage race was to end in Madrid yesterday after covering a total distance of 3,300km.