Alberto Contador on verge of title
MADRID -- Alberto Contador kept the overall leader's red jersey and is closing in on his second Spanish Vuelta title after Denis Menchov won Saturday's punishing 20th stage.
Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez, Contador's closest pursuers in the general classification, finished ahead of the Spanish leader but the difference wasn't enough to close the gap.
Contador finished 4 minutes, 15 seconds behind Menchov to run his overall time to 82:14:52, which was 1:16 quicker than Valverde and 1:37 ahead of Rodriguez before Sunday's last stage, a largely processional 71-mile ride into Madrid.
Contador is on the verge of a fifth major victory to go with a pair of Tour de France titles and the 2008 Giro d'Italia, which he won before his first Vuelta victory later that same year.
"Yes, now the Vuelta is practically won," the Madrid native said. "It has been very difficult and we've had to hold our head high and our legs strong."
On the bending climb to the weather station atop the Bola del Mundo, Contador was just in front of Valverde and Rodriguez as the peloton eased from smooth pavement to an uneven surface as throngs of fans choked the road.
Rodriguez made a late dash as the riders dug in and the peloton slowed to a crawl at times while navigating the 23 percent angled climb to the finish.
With Rodriguez ahead of Contador, Valverde also put together a push and finished behind Rodriguez but the difference was minimal and the pair failed to make a significant dent in Contador's advantage. Valverde managed to gain just 19 seconds while Rodriguez chipped off 48 seconds as Contador stuck to his own pace to the finish.
"Again the team was great on the Bola del Mundo," Contador said. "I knew Joaquin was going to attack but there wasn't enough terrain left for him to make up time. It's a special win."
Two-time Vuelta winner Menchov outlasted Richie Porte of Australia to win the penultimate leg by 17 seconds in 4:48:48. It was the Russian's fourth career stage win at the Spanish classic.
Kevin de Weert of Belgium was 42 seconds behind Menchov in third ahead of Sweden's Fredrik Kessiakoff and Romain Sicard of France, who was 1:39 behind.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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