Just nine seconds. That?s all that separates Tour runner-up Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) and stage winner Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) – third and fourth overall – after the Vuelta?s last day in the mountains.

For the last two and a half weeks barring the stage to Torre Pacheco, the weather has been goood. But on stage 19 the heavens opened with a vengeance for the short, sharp 133 kilometre stage from Avila to the Alto de Abantos summit finish, tackled twice on Friday – and on both occasions in a downpour.

The second and final time round, the main favourites reached the foot of the 12 kilometre climb almost all together. Although Sanchez?s team-mate Igor Anton was in a small group a handful of seconds ahead, race leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was looking as solid as ever despite the teeming rain.

Not so Evans, who looked uncomfortable when Sanchez charged away. The Australian then cracked completely when Sastre, closely followed by Menchov, opened fire a third of the way up the climb – a narrow mountain track picking its way through dense pine-woods.

The CSC leader quickly bridged across to Sanchez and with Menchov happy to follow the duo?s wheels, slowly but surely the gap opened on Evans.

Come the summit Evans was 1-25 back, in 15th spot, crossing the line so tired he had to hold himself up against the barriers. He had managed to hang on to his third place by nine seconds from Sanchez, a margin even closer than the 23 seconds that separated the Australian from Alberto Contador in the final classification of the ?07 Tour.

Sanchez, meanwhile, had easily outsprinted Relax-Gam rider Dani Moreno for his second mountain stage win in the 2007 Vuelta. But he made no bones that he would have been more interested in getting onto the provisional podium.

?That was my big objective today, and in fact things didn?t work out as we?d planned.”

?My idea was to attack on the descent of the second last climb, the Robledondo, get across to two team-mates ahead and get to the foot of Abantos 90 seconds up on the rest.?

?But it didn?t work out because they got the information wrong on the race radio and said the descent from Robledondo was dry, not wet. So I didnt’ attack and had to wait until the final climb.

Sanchez had the considerable consolation prize of a second stage win, but he said that it was unlikely that he could finally topple Evans from the podium before Sunday’s finale in Madrid.

?If he has a bad day and I have an exceptionally good one, then I might.? he said.
Meanwhile race leader Denis Menchov almost has the event wrapped up – or as he put it ?95 percent won. But in any case, I want to take Saturday?s time trial to prove I?m the strongest here.?

Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (r) congratulates Tour of Spain leader Denis Menchov. Photos by Graham Watson

Tour of Spain stage 19 Avila – Alto de Abantos 133km
1 Samuel Sanchez (Spain) Euskaltel-Euskadi 3-37-01
2 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Relax-Gam at st
3 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 3sec
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at st
5 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 14sec
6 Sylvester Szmyd (Pol) Lampre at 29sec
7 Stephane Goubert (Fra) Ag2R at 41sec
8 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas at 49sec
9 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 51sec
10 David Lopez (Spa) Caisse D?Epargne at 59sec
115 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 22-35

Overall after 19 stages
1 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 77-59-17
2 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at 3-02
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 3-49
4 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-58
5 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 5-23
6 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 5-47
7 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D?Epargne at 7-55
8 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 7-58
9 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas at 8-27
10 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 10-08
131 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 2-38-18

TOUR OF SPAIN 2007: STAGE REPORTS
Stage 18: Sastre stirs up Tour of Spain
Stage 17: Bennati leads Italian sprint fest
Stage 16: Duque takes transition stage
Stage 15: Menchov stays on top
Stage 14: Almost goodbye, but Discovery still winning
Stage 13: Klier ends four-year gap with win
Stage 12: Petacchi racks up the wins
Stage 11: Petacchi puts troubles behind him for stage win
Rest day review
Stage 10: Menchov proves he’s the boss
Stage nine: Menchov takes control
Stage eight (TT): Devolder soars to race lead
Stage seven: Zabel surprise winner
Stage six: Freire outguns Petacchi for stage hat-trick
Stage five: Freire takes second bunch sprint victory
Stage four: Efimkin upstages favourites in Vuelta
Stage three: Bettini bounces back with Vuelta stage win
Stage two: Freire nets stage win and Vuelta lead
Stage one: Bennati takes race lead in bunch sprint
Tour of Spain preview, including stage and team list

RELATED LINKS
Astana out of 2007 Tour of Spain
Eurosport cycling TV schedule for September
Vuelta confirms support for ASO in ProTour row
Vinokourov wins 2006 Tour of Spain overall

Official site: www.lavuelta.com.