In a Vuelta a España packed with climbs, Tuesday’s 36.7km race against the clock could leave a decisive mark on the final GC.
The route offers some interesting terrain for the Spanish mountain goats facing off against favored GC rider Chris Froome (Sky). With a challenging, third-category climb in the opening 11 kilometers, followed by a fast descent, and some technical roads, the time trial could determine the GC fate of more than a few overall contenders.
Time trials at the Vuelta are always a little different than at the Tour de France. The Spanish tour usually lacks longer, flatter courses, where riders like Froome can take big gains against the climbers. On a similar distance of 33km in the 2013 Tour on the windy, power course to Mont-Saint-Michel, Froome took 2:15 out of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and a whopping 3:28 out of Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
For Tuesday, Froome is the first to admit he’s not in the same condition he was for the Tour in July, so he’s certainly not banking on hitting it out of the park.
“It’s relatively short compared to time trials elsewhere, but I enjoy time trialing, so I am hoping to make the most of it,” Froome said Sunday. “It’s a huge fight here, and it’s going to be a big race all the way to the end. Every second here or there is going to count.”
Froome lost 23 seconds to Contador, Quintana, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) when he couldn’t follow the surges Sunday, and will be desperate for a strong ride to revive his overall chances. At fifth overall, 28 seconds back, he’s still right in the thick of things, but any gains taken against the clock Tuesday would serve as a welcome buffer going into the Vuelta’s brutal second half that’s packed with monster climbs.
Riders such as Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), who won on a similar course last year, will be the favorites for the stage victory. Others, such as Adriano Malori (Movistar) and Kristof Vandewalle (Trek Factory Racing) could be in with a shot of the win as well.
All eyes will be on the clock, and the GC players. The difference between race leader Quintana and sixth-place Rodríguez is only 30 seconds, and as Quintana said, the race is virtually tied.
That will surely change Tuesday. The major GC candidates took a chance to preview the course during Monday’s rest day, and all agree that the course presents a stiff challenge.
“When you see it in person, you realize it’s harder than it looks on paper,” Contador said Monday. “The first part is a climb, with some sections truly steep, then a very fast descent over an irregular and difficult road. The last part, in contrast, you have to be stuck to your bike. It’s easy enough to describe it, but it will be very difficult.”
After Sunday’s cool, rainy weather at Valdelinares, forecasters are calling for a return of warm, sunny skies, with temperatures in the low 90s, with gusting winds, so conditions should be relatively equal for the main GC contenders starting at the end of the start list.
Contador, who’s made an impressive return to the Vuelta after pulling out of the Tour with a fractured leg, said Tuesday’s time trial will reveal much about the remainder of the Vuelta.
“Tomorrow is a good test to see exactly where I am physically,” he continued. “I don’t want to deceive myself, and draw the wrong conclusions from [Sunday's] stage.”
The more challenging course will be a blessing in disguise for Rodríguez, who lost the 2010 Vuelta to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) with an abysmal time trial on flat, wind-blasted roads. Rodríguez has worked to improve against the clock, and on a similar course in the 2012 Vuelta, he only lost 59 seconds to Contador and even less to Froome. Rodríguez, who crashed out of the Giro d’Italia in May, is crossing his fingers for a strong ride.
“I have to be [optimistic], because the only chance I have to keep aspiring for victory in this Vuelta is to have a great time trial, and not get too far back in the GC,” Rodríguez said Monday. “This has been a Vuelta with a lot of movement. No one has given up yet, and all the favorites and their teams are engaged in the race. [Tuesday] will be an important test, and we’ll be able to see more things, and to truly test where each and every favorite stands.”
Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), ninth at 1:26 back, will also need a superb performance to revive his GC hopes. Urán won on a similar course at Barolo at the Giro, taking 2:41 out of Quintana, who was ailing from a minor chest cold.
“I have a lot of hope,” Urán said. “I’ve worked hard this year on time trialing, and I’ve done some good ones. There’s still Cancellara, Martin, but considering the GC rivals, I hope to have a good ride.”
All eyes will be on Quintana, who will start last as the race leader, and have time checks to all of his rivals. If the Giro champ can limit his losses to the likes of Froome and Contador, he will only gain confidence going into the second half of the Vuelta.
“I’ve made improvements against the clock, and though there are specialists who will take time on me, I don’t think I will lose that much,” Quintana said Monday. “I have good legs now, and I hope to feel that way [Tuesday], and do my best ride possible.”
Tuesday’s time trial will surely reshuffle the GC deck yet again, but it’s doubtful it will be prove decisive.
Pundits say modern grand tours are won and lost against the clock, and that might well be the case in the Tour, but the Vuelta is a different kind of race, and the final winner will certainly be crowned in a brutal trio of climbing stages across Asturias.