Wednesday’s 46km individual time trial will have double meaning as the Vuelta a España clicks back into gear following Tuesday’s rest day in north-central Spain.
The long, flat power course will have huge implications on the GC battle as well as provide a preview of who will be bucking for the TT rainbow jersey at the Melbourne world championships in October.
At the top of GC rankings, the TT should go a long way toward deciding if it’s Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) or Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) who will don the red jersey when the Vuelta ends Sunday in Madrid.
“Purito” leads the “Shark of Messina” but a slender 33-second margin and Rodríguez knows he needs to limit his losses to Nibali on the Italian’s favored ground if he hopes to win his first major grand tour.
“I will try to limit my losses. I previewed the route and I will try to make the best time trial of my life,” Rodríguez said. “If I can keep it to two minutes, and that’s already a lot, then I will keep open my options on the Bola del Mundo.”
Nibali, meanwhile, needs to deliver a knock-out punch in the race against the clock if he hopes to win what would also be his first major grand tour. Third at the Giro d’Italia, Nibali seemed to be on cruise control in a wild weekend of racing in northern Spain that saw him inherit the race leader’s jersey when Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) crashed out of Saturday’s stage.
Liquigas did a great job taking control of the race following Antón’s unexpected exit, but Nibali showed signs he was cracking in the final kilometer of Monday’s summit finish up Cotobello. The Italian lost more than half-a-minute – and the leader’s jersey – over less than 900 meters from the line when Rodríguez attacked.
On paper, Nibali is a far superior time trialist than Rodríguez. The Italian has posted consistent top 10s in stage races, while Rodríguez typically finishes in the bottom middle of the pack.
With the Vuelta on the line, expect Rodríguez to have the time trial of his life, or at least try. Strong riders in leader’s jerseys typically defend well in a late-race TT, yet the Spaniard can expect to lose time to his Italian rival.
How much is the magic question. If Rodríguez loses two seconds per kilometer – a modest amount considering Nibali’s superiority – that would be about one and a half minutes, keeping Rodríguez well within striking range for a give-all assault up the Bola del Mundo climb on Saturday.
If Nibali can extract three seconds per kilometer, that would give him nearly a two-minute cushion going into Saturday’s showdown on the Bola, likely enough for Nibali to secure the overall victory unless he totally cracks.
“In a normal time trial, I can take three minutes on him. If I am bad, maybe just one,” Nibali said. “I would like to have the leader’s jersey going into the final weekend. It’s always better to have it than to try to take it away.”
Behind Nibali and Rodríguez, the other GC leaders who could expect to take back some time on the time trial are all too far back to realistically make a run for the leader’s jersey. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) dropped to sixth at 4;27. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) and Xavier Tondo (Cervélo) are both solid in the TTs, but both are more than four minutes back.
Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) will be doing their best on unfavorable terrain to try to secure a podium spot, but could see a threat from Nicholas Roche (Ag2r) – fifth at 3:01.
A worlds preview?
On the other end of the leader board, riders such as Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) will be going full-gas in what will be a preview of the upcoming world championships.
Cancellara has been using the Vuelta to get into shape for Melbourne to defend his title. Zabriskie has been taking huge pulls and sneaking into breakaways not only to help his team but to achieve the fitness he’ll need to try to derail Cancellara in Australia.
Others to watch Wednesday include Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank), David Millar (Garmin-Transitions), Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre), though he’s still badly injured from his crash Saturday and might not be able to hold the TT position, and perhaps Luís León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who tried to get into the breakaway Monday and will want to try to take something away from what’s been a disappointing Vuelta.
The course traces the vineyards of the Duero Valley and the victor will be awarded a fine bottle of vino tinto for their efforts. Whoever comes out on top will be looking to swap that for champagne on the winner’s podium either in Madrid or Melbourne.