Russian Denis Menchov came through one of the toughest stages of the Vuelta unscathed on Sunday.

The Rabobank rider and Vuelta leader was unable to repeat his mountain-top victory at Andorra of six days ago – but Menchov?s ability to respond to all of the challenges to his overall lead remains undiminished.

Predictably it was Carlos Sastre (CSC), fourth on gc, who launched most of the attacks on the much-feared climb of Monachil close to the finish in Granada, although Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), who knew the ascent from his mountain-bike days, made one of his rare challenges as well.

To no avail: the only rider Menchov was happy to see go up the road was Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), far enough down on gc not to pose a real threat when there was less than 25 kilometres to go and most of it downhill.

Sanchez then provided the fireworks of the stage with a spectacular descent – touching 100 kmh on the fastest sections of the 20 kilometre drop into Granada and handing over a cross and lucky tiger shark?s tooth to a motorbike rider when the chain broke just as he was hurtling downhill.

Sanchez then caught veteran Spaniard Manolo Beltran close to the finish and the two collaborated just enough to duke it out for the stage win. Sanchez took the day?s honours ahead of Beltran, with Menchov finishing nineth on the stage in a small group of favourites, 41 seconds behind and with his advantage on the gc unchanged.

No repeat then of last year’s events on the Monachil climb, when Spaniard Alejandro Valverde lost the race to Alexandre Vinokourov. For Menchov to come through still in control is a huge psychological step forwards to winning in Madrid.

?What happened was what we expected to happen.? Menchov said. ?Sastre provided most of the attacks on Monachil, but it was Euskaltel-Euskadi who wanted the stage win the most – and they got it.?

?I?ve defended my overall lead and it looks as if Sastre?s my most dangerous rival. Evans and Efimkin are riding to defend their places on the podium.?

Sanchez moved up to fifth overall thanks to his attack, but more important, he said, was the stage win.

?We needed to do something like that for the team.? he argued. ?We?ve been getting in breaks in major Tours all year, but we haven?t won a stage up until now.?

What was he thinking about when he hit such high speeds on the descent into Granada, one journalist asked. ?I was praying I wouldn?t puncture, because at that sort of speed you?d kill yourself.? he answered with a grin.

The lucky shark?s tooth, he revealed, was given to him by his brother-in-law three years ago and ?since then I?ve been winning races, so I always wear it.? Losing it half-way down the descent to Granada, though, did not stop him from taking the third Vuelta stage of his career on Sunday.

Carlos Sastre on stage 15. Photos by Graham Watson

Tour of Spain stage 15 Villacarrillo-Granada 201km
1 Samuel Sanchez (Spain) Euskaltel-Euskadi 4-45-59
2 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas at st
3 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 24sec
4 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 41sec
5 Daniel Moreno (Spa) Relax-Gam
6 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre
7 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne
8 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto
9 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank
10 Luis Perez (Spa) Andalucia-Caja Sur all st
98 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas) at 22-15

Tour of Spain overall after 15 stages
1 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 62-32-27
2 Vladimir Efimkin (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne at 2-01
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor-Lotto at 2-27
4 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC at 3-02
5 Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4-01
6 Ezequiel Mosquera (Spa) Karpin-Galicia at 4-35
7 Manuel Beltran (Spa) Liquigas at 5-15
8 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse D’Epargne at 6-17
9 Carlos Barredo (Spa) Quick Step at 6-22
10 Igor Anton (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 7-41
132 Magnus Backstedt (Swe) Liquigas at 1-47-42

TOUR OF SPAIN 2007: STAGE REPORTS
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.

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