RIVAROLO CANAVESE, Italy (VN) — Grand tours take in thousands of miles, dozens of spirit-breaking climbs, and endless hours of poor weather, but they’re won or lost in one hour against the clock.
Time trials are where grand tours are typically decided, and that’s become especially true at the Tour de France, where even an extraordinary climber who cannot perform well against the clock has almost no realistic chance to win the maillot jaune.
Thursday’s 42km individual time trial saw Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) deliver the ride of his career. But will it be enough to win the Giro d’Italia?
Urán certainly is hoping so.
“I knew the time trial would be important, and we’ve been working on improving my time trial since last winter,” Urán said Friday morning. “How long can I hold the pink jersey? Hopefully all the way to Trieste.”
Urán became Colombia’s first pink jersey thanks to gains made in both Thursday’s individual time trial and the opening day team time trial, when Omega Pharma, as the reigning world team time trial champions, stopped the clock five seconds behind winners Orica-GreenEdge, but ahead of every other team in the peloton.
With his move to Omega Pharma to lead the team’s GC ambitions, Urán knew he needed to improve his time trialing to have any hope of winning the Giro.
Already a solid climber, he worked intensely over the winter to improve his time trial position, spending a week in California with bike sponsor Specialized, riding on a track and in the wind tunnel.
Specialized technicians estimated improvements in position, material, and training bettered Urán’s performance by nearly a second per kilometer.
“The last few years, we’ve seen the winners of the grand tours being good in both the mountains and the time trials, so I knew I needed to improve,” Urán said. “We’ve been working on this since the winter, so we were very happy about Thursday’s result.”
To prepare for Thursday’s time trial, Specialized had three staffers on the ground helping its sponsored teams. In addition to Omega Pharma, Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo also race on the Specialized Shiv. Technician Patxi Vila videotaped the course, and drove over it seven times to study road and wind conditions, passing along tips to the teams on how to race the course.
It paid off big dividends, not only for Specialized, which placed five sponsored riders into the top eight, but also for Urán.
Going into this weekend’s pair of mountain stages, Urán leads 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) by 37 seconds and third-placed Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) by nearly two minutes. Arch-rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is at 3:29 back. It’s all time taken against the clock.
“It was very important to take time on my rivals [in the time trial]. I was also happy to win, but with two climbs, it was not a stage for specialists, and the big time trial favorites, like [Tony] Martin or [Fabian] Cancellara were not here,” Urán said. “Also, the road conditions dried out quite a bit for the late starters. Overall, it was a very good day for us.”
As cycling has evolved to become more controlled and more scientific, especially with the application of power meters in training and racing, the overall level at the top of the peloton is relatively equal. The winning differences are now being made in time trials.
During the past three Tours — won by Evans in 2011, Bradley Wiggins (Sky) in 2012, and Chris Froome (Sky) last year — the yellow jerseys have been won largely thanks to dominance in the time trials. In 2011, Evans surpassed Andy Schleck on the penultimate stage to claim the maillot jaune, while Wiggins and Froome both took decisive gains in the time trials.
“In modern cycling, because everyone is a very similar level, with advances in training and the use of power meters, it almost comes down to mathematics,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “The differences are made in the small details and, above all, the time trials. And we still have one more time trial.”
Arrieta was referring to the climbing time trial looming in stage 19. The 26.85km course is flat for the opening 7.5km, and then it’s straight up the Crespano del Grappa summit (19.3km at 8 percent). Riders certainly won’t be riding time trial bikes during that stage, but wheel selection, material, and aerodynamics will still prove decisive despite the long climb.
“If you cannot time trial well, it’s almost impossible to win a grand tour today,” Arrieta said. “Of course, you must be able to climb with the very best. A time trial specialist cannot win the Tour, but a climber who cannot time trial well enough to defend, also cannot win the Tour.”
At the Giro or Vuelta a España, which both typically feature more climbs than the more-balanced Tour, that equation is skewed more toward the climbers. Even there, a solid time trial is essential. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who won the Vuelta in 2010, and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), who used the final-day time trial in Milano to overcome Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) to win the maglia rosa by 16 seconds, both paved their victories thanks to strong TT performances.
Despite Urán’s relatively large lead to everyone behind Evans on GC, Omega Pharma is not putting the champagne on ice just yet.
Although he was second overall last year, Urán remains untested as an outright GC leader. In fact, this Giro marks the first time in team history that Omega Pharma has brought a serious podium contender to a grand tour.
Omega Pharma sport director Davide Bramati agreed Urán’s improved time trialing has put him into the pink jersey, but to win the Giro, he’ll need to be able to defend in the Giro’s brutal final week.
“For us, this Giro is not finished,” Bramati said Friday. “We see the first hard climbs this weekend. Tomorrow is the start of the ‘real’ Giro. The mountains will decide this Giro.”
Even if the mountains ultimately decide this Giro, as Bramati suggests, Urán’s improved prowess against the clock will make it harder for anyone else to take away the pink jersey.