Drama right to the end of absorbing race as Valverde snatches points jersey from Rodriguez on final day

Alberto Contador has won the Vuelta for the second time in his career, just a month after returning to racing with Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank following a six-month absence from competition following his ban due to his positive test for clenbuterol in the 2010 Tour de France. The stage win in Madrid today went to Argos Shimano's John Degenkolb, the German picking up his fifth sprint victory of this year's race, today holding off Liquigas-Cannondale's Elia Viviani and Daniele Bennati of RadioShack-Nissan to cross the line first.

Degenkolb had already seen his chances of winning the points competition disappear, but at the very end of a race that has been one of the most dramatic Grand Tours in recent years, there was still time for one final twist in that classification as Movistar's Alejandro Valverde finished in sixth place in the sprint to snatch the green jersey from Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez.

The latter, who lost the lead of the Giro d'Italia in May on the very last day in Milan when Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal overhauled him in the time trial, had led this year's Vuelta for a fortnight and defended his lead through three tough days in the mountains last weekend before Contador rode to a sensational victory on what had seemed in advance to be an innocuous Stage 17 on Wednesday.

Rodriguez completes the podium behind Contador and Valverde, the latter also taking the combined jersey, while Movistar won the team classification. There were no changes in time gaps between the leading trio today, Contador winning by 1 minute 13 seconds from Valverde, with Rodriguez a further 21 seconds back.

Team Sky's Chris Froome, runner-up last year, held on to his fourth place, more than ten minutes down on Contador as the exertions of a season that was disrupted early on by illness and then saw him recover to clinch second place in the Tour de France behind team mate Bradley Wiggins finally caught up with him.

This year's Vuelta may have been a race too far for the Kenya-born Briton, but he'll be more interested than most in the route of the 2013 Tour when it's announced in Paris next month, with the prospect of him being Sky's designated leader, depending on the parcours. While the past three weeks may have finished in frustration, his first experience as team leader in a Grand Tour will have been a valuable one.

Crossing the line, Contador appeared to hold up seven fingers, possibly representing the seven Grand Tours, including the 2008 Vuelta, where he has finished on the top step of the podium - although of course he lost two of those, the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport banned him in February.

Vuelta Stage 21 Result  
1  DEGENKOLB, John       ARG       2h 44' 57''
2  VIVIANI, Elia         LIQ    All at same time
3  BENNATI, Daniele      RNT
4  DAVIS, Allan          OGE
5  FERNÁNDEZ, Koldo      GRS
6  VALVERDE, Alejandro   MOV
7  STEEGMANS, Gert       OPQ
8  STYBAR, Zdenek        OPQ
9  KREDER, Raymond       GRS
10 VERDUGO, Gorka        EUS
11 LIGTHART, Pim         VCD
12 DUQUE, Leonardo       COF
13 BRESCHEL, Matti       RAB
14 CARDOSO, Manuel       CJR
15 LODEWYCK, Klaas       BMC
16 KOSTYUK, Denys        LAM
17 MONDORY, Lloyd        ALM
18 GARCIA, Egoitz        COF
19 SWIFT, Ben            SKY
20 ROLLIN, Dominique     FDJ
Last man home on Stage 21  
175 DOCKER, Mitchell     OGE          + 3' 39''
Final General Classification   
1  CONTADOR, Alberto     STB       84h 59' 49''
2  VALVERDE, Alejandro   MOV          + 1' 16''
3  RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin    KAT          + 1' 37''
4  FROOME, Christopher   SKY          + 10' 16''
5  MORENO, Daniel        KAT          + 11' 29''
6  GESINK, Robert        RAB          + 12' 23''
7  TALANSKY, Andrew      GRS          + 13' 28''
8  TEN DAM, Laurens      RAB          + 13' 41''
9  ANTON, Igor           EUS          + 14' 01''
10 INTXAUSTI, Beñat      MOV          + 16' 13''
Final Points Classification   
1  VALVERDE, Alejandro   MOV               199
2  RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin    KAT               193
3  CONTADOR, Alberto     STB               161
4  DEGENKOLB, John       ARG               149
5  BENNATI, Daniele      RNT               107

Final Mountains Classification   

1  CLARKE, Simon         OGE               63
2  DE LA FUENTE, David   CJR               40
3  RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin    KAT               36
4  DE GENDT, Thomas      VCD               33
5  VALVERDE, Alejandro   MOV               31

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.