BENIDORM, Spain (VN) — Jakob Fuglsang was surprised as anyone that he was the man standing atop the winner’s podium in Saturday’s short but explosive 13.5km team time trial to open the 66th Vuelta a España.
Time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara helped power Leopard-Trek to victory, but it was Fuglsang who slipped across the line first as the squad stopped the clock in 16:30 (49.091kph).
As the seventh team starting among the field of 22, Fuglsang had a long wait. HTC-Highroad and Liquigas came closest, nine and four seconds off the pace, respectively, but the Dane came up smiling.
“We had no agreement on who would cross the line first. We didn’t talk about it. Our goal was to do as well as a TT as we could,” Fuglsang said. “I got to the front with 200 meters to go and I went as hard as I could. I expected someone to come around me, but no one did.”
Fuglsang becomes the second Dane in Vuelta history to claim the leader’s jersey. The first was Leopard-Trek’s sport director Lars Michaelsen, who wore it for four days in 1997.
Leopard-Trek knew they would have a good shot at victory, but Fabian Cancellara called it the biggest “surprise win of my career.” With a punchy climb to open the course, the TTT offered plenty of technical challenges as the course swept through narrow, cobbled streets in Benidorm’s historic district before hitting the flats by the main beach, where wind buffeted the teams in the closing 5km.
“It was everything you could have in a time trial course,” Fuglsang said. “It was very difficult. You had to be careful not to blow up the team on the first climb. Then it was very tricky and then some wind. We had to concentrate completely to keep the team together. We knew we could have a chance of winning only if we kept it at the maximum.”
Liquigas, Highroad come close
Liquigas-Cannondale, powered by defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, was one second faster than Leopard-Trek at the turnaround point for the intermediate time check, but the team quickly dwindled to the minimum five riders. Nibali poured it on in the final kilometer, but the Italians came up four seconds short.
On paper, the short, technical course favored HTC-Highroad, which brought a team loaded with sprinters and TT specialists for what would be their final TTT in the team’s history. Highroad won last year’s nighttime TTT at Sevilla, when temperatures were well into the 40s Celsius, yet despite the extra motivation of knowing that the team is folding at the end of the season, HTC stopped the clock for third at nine seconds off the pace.
That sets up sprinter phenom John Degenkolb perfectly for a chance to snag the leader’s jersey in Sunday’s road stage (Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss were both dropped).
“We said at the start if we have all nine guys together at the finish line, we did something wrong,” said Highroad sport director Jens Zemke. “Goss came off when Tony Martin was taking big pulls on the climb and then Cav’ lost the wheel on the descent. It was a very challenging team time trial. It’s the last time we will ride together in a time trial like this, so we are very proud of our boys of how they performed today.”
With finish-line bonuses in play, Degenkolb and Liquigas’s Daniele Bennati are in the driver’s seat to make Fuglsang’s leader-jersey run a short one.
Euskaltel-Euskadi, which typically performs poorly in team tests against the clock, rode respectably to keep Igor Antón in good position with 12th at 28 seconds back.
“This course was better for us, because it was shorter and quite a bit more technical,” said Euskaltel-Euskadi sport director Igor González de Galdeano. “We know we’ll never be the best at the discipline, but we are working to improve. The key today was to not lose too much time, and we’re satisfied.”
Garmin-Cervélo started second, but didn’t pack the same firepower it did when it won the TTT at the Tour de France in July. The squad settled for ninth at 25 seconds off the winning pace.
“It was a strange time trial. There were a lot of curves, tight roads, roundabouts, it was impossible to get a rhythm,” said Garmin sport director Bingen Fernandez. “We were hoping for a little more to be closer to the best to have Tyler (Farrar) within shot of taking the leader’s jersey with the time bonuses. We can keep working on that, but we’re too far out to try tomorrow.”
Wiggins, Menchov cede time
As good as events unfolded for the leading squads, things went sideways for more than a few squads.
Pre-Vuelta favorite Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack) slipped his chain right off the start ramp, prompting the remainder of the team to wait for one of its two protected GC leaders. With a steep climb in the opening 4km, it was hardly the ideal way to start.
RadioShack managed to regroup and stop the clock at 14th at 28 seconds slower to limit their losses.
“We were told to wait for Janez. It was too bad, because we thought we could have a team that could challenge for a top spot in this discipline. With that bad start, we had to regroup and try to save the day,” said Haimar Zubeldia. “Once we restarted, we set a pretty good rhythm and tried to get to the line as smoothly as possible.”
Things were worse for Team Sky, who finished 20th out of 22 teams at 42 seconds off the pace. Two riders collided with each other in the first kilometer, leaving only four riders at the front. Xabier Zandio, a lean Spanish climber, eventually latched onto Wiggins, but the momentum was lost.
“We lost so many riders and they had to wait. I could catch back, but from then on, it wasn’t easy to maintain the speed,” Zandio said. “Wiggins is very strong. He kept dropping everyone when he pulled to the front. It wasn’t the best start for us, but we will keep riding for Wiggins. We think we can do something in this Vuelta.”
Things were calamitous at Geox-TMC, who saw pre-race favorites Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre finish second to last, 43 seconds off the leading time.
Menchov is pegged to be a major force in this Vuelta, especially with the 47km individual time trial in Salamanca ideal for his characteristics, but giving up this much time is hardly what was expected.
Tour of Flanders champ Nick Nuyens (SaxoBank-Sungard) crashed when he rode off course near the top of the climb and possibly fractured a wrist.
Others had their moments. Marco Manzano (Lampre-ISD) had to change a wheel just moments after rolling down the start ramp and rode the entire TTT alone. He didn’t finish last; that honor went to Chente García, who lost 4:54 and becomes the Vuelta’s first farolillo rojo — otherwise known as the lanterne rouge.
- 1. Leopard Trek, 16:30
- 2. Liquigas, at 0:04
- 3. HTC, at 0:09
- 4. Astana, at 0:10
- 5. Movistar, at 0:14
- 1. Jakob Fuglsang, Leopard-Trek, 16:30
- 2. Fabian Cancellara, Leopard-Trek, same time
- 3. Maxime Monfort, Leopard-Trek, s.t.
- 4. Thomas Rohregger, Leopard-Trek, s.t.
- 5. Daniele Benatti, Leopard-Trek, s.t.