AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) - Alberto Contador won his second Spanish Vuelta title on Sunday, capturing a fifth triumph at cycling's major races just over a month after his doping ban ended.
The Spanish cyclist navigated the straightforward and largely processional final leg into and around Madrid with ease to edge out Spanish compatriots Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez in the 21-stage race.
Valverde, the 2009 winner, finished 1 minute, 16 seconds behind. Rodriguez was 1:38 back after having led the 67th edition of the Spanish classic for 13 stages.
Contador crossed the finish line 54th behind stage winner John Degenkolb and celebrated by flashing seven fingers to also represent his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia victories, titles that he was ultimately stripped of because of a positive drug test.
"Because of what happened coming in, this victory is very special for me and I have to thank everyone who helped me because I came in without having competed for a long time and things were complicated," said the 29-year-old Contador, who also scored Tour victories in 2007 and 2009, and a Giro triumph in 2008.
"Reflecting on it, there are a lot of emotions that are very strong and that can't be explained with words. It's a big weight off of me."
Contador tested positive for clenbuterol en route to winning the 2010 Tour, blaming contaminated meat for the result. He kept racing while his appeal was ongoing but lost his case in February and his results since August 2010 were erased, including the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro titles.
Having missed out on this year's Tour as he served his ban, Contador marked his return to major competition with a fearless display that showcased all the characteristics that led to him being called the best rider of his generation.
"It was a tough Vuelta right from the start, but when things are harder to achieve you appreciate them even more," Contador said after celebrating with his team on the podium. "It leaves a tremendous taste."
Contador seized control of the race with a gutsy ride in the 17th leg, a moment he said "would stick in everyone's mind."
Rodriguez, runner-up at the Giro d'Italia, looked set to win his first major race after taking the overall lead in the fourth stage and then holding off Contador's repeated attacks on other days. The Katusha cyclist even emerged from the individual time trial in the 11th stage with a 1-second lead over Contador, an advantage he extended to 28 seconds before the 17th stage.
Contador turned the tables by taking control in that leg, breaking away audaciously more than 31 miles from the mountain finish at Fuente De to build a commanding lead that served him until the finale near his hometown of Pinto.
"(Rodriguez) was very strong. He matched my attacks, so it was very tough to win this," Contador said. "I enjoyed it very much as it was a spectacular Vuelta."
Valverde managed to get past Rodriguez in the 17th stage to move into second. But neither rider could make up the gap to Contador on Saturday, a punishing ride finishing with a special category climb at Bola del Mundo.
Tour de France runner-up Christopher Froome of Britain didn't have the legs to compete, finishing 10:16 behind Contador's winning time of 84:59:49.
Contador is one of only five riders to have won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi have also won all three of cycling's major races.
Degenkolb won the 71-mile flat ride from Cercedilla in 2:44:57 for his fifth stage victory in this year's Vuelta. The German cyclist edged out Italian pair Elia Iviani and Daniele Bennati in a sprint finish at Madrid's Plaza de Cibeles.
Valverde won the green jersey for the most individual points from 21 stages to help Movistar finish as the leading team. Simon Clarke of Australia won the award for best climber in the race.
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