PORTIMAO, Portugal (VN) — Young Colombian Sergio Henao (Team Sky) took the flowers in the “queen stage” atop a short but steep second-category summit at the Volta ao Algarve on Saturday.
But it was the hulking mass of world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who lurched across the line 11th, just 18 seconds back, who may well win the war in the four-stage race across the hills of southern Portugal.
Both Henao and Martin fulfilled their pre-stage ambitions. Speaking to VeloNews before the start, Sky sport director Marcus Ljungqvist said the team would be riding for Henao to win up the Cat. 2 Alto do Malhao.
“Today is good for Sergio,” he said. “He’s got bigger goals later in the season, but we see that he is already very strong.”
Martin also knew if he could keep whoever won on a reasonably short leash that he’d be in for a shot at the overall. With a 34km time trial on tap Sunday, Martin could well be the day’s second winner, setting himself up for a second GC title in three years.
“I want to be as close as possible to the leaders today,” Martin said at the sign-in. “If I can be close, I should have good chances for the overall.”
Some four hours later, things went according to script for both Sky and Omega Pharma.
Henao got his win, giving Sky the victory for the third year in a row up the climb, kicking clear ahead of Portuguese star Rui Costa (Movistar) to open his account for the 2013 season and take the overall lead to boot. Richie Porte won on the same climb last year to set him up for overall win ahead of Martin while Steve Cummings won in 2011 ahead of Tejay van Garderen, now his teammate on BMC.
“It was a beautiful, very hard stage. The team supported me and my legs responded when they had to,” Henao said. “I have improved a lot in the time trial, even though I am far from being a specialist. I promise to give the maximum to try to keep the leader’s jersey.”
Martin won the Algarve in 2011 thanks to that strong ride up the Malhao climb and he’s hoping to finish off the job again this year in Sunday’s TT finale in Tavira.
It won’t be easy, however. Not only did Henao take time bonuses to hold a 28-second lead on Martin, the German TT king will have to beat several other good time trialists sitting ahead of him on GC.
Lieuwe Westre (Vacansoleil-DCM), the Dutch rider who almost upended Bradley Wiggins in last year’s Paris-Nice, is fourth at 11 seconds back. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Trek) is fifth at 17 seconds back while Denis Menchov (Katusha) is seventh on the same time.
However, Martin — who is intent on winning every major time trial he starts this season — will be the favorite.
Forecasters are calling for gusting wind and rain for Sunday’s TT finale. It should be a doozy.