NIMES, France (VN) — Two things that everyone already knew were reconfirmed Saturday in the opening stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España.
BMC Racing blasted to victory in the team time trial. Rohan Dennis led the way across the line to snag the red leader’s jersey to remind everyone BMC is the best TTT squad in the pack. No surprise there.
Sky’s Chris Froome took significant gains against his main rivals in the team test against the clock. Though Sky finished fourth in the stage, 9 seconds slower than BMC, the gaps were serious: 22 seconds to Vincenzo Nibali, 26 seconds to Alberto Contador, and 32 seconds to Fabio Aru. Uffff. No surprise there.
“We wanted to stay safe, but  seconds is quite a bit of time,” said Contador, racing his final team time trial of his career. “It’s never good to start off from behind, is it?”
Well, not if you want to beat a highly motivated and highly favored Froome. The four-time Tour de France champion strides into this Vuelta hell-bent on turning his three previous second places into victory.
On Saturday, he took some gains that might be more than marginal by the time the Vuelta ends in Madrid on September 10. After winning his fourth Tour title last month by just 54 seconds — the smallest winning margin of his quartet of yellow jerseys — Froome already nearly has half that in the first day of the Vuelta.
“We all know it’s a fast and technical time trial, so only losing nine seconds to BMC, and gaining time on others was good,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “Froome was telling me that he was feeling really strong, so that’s a good sign as you need to be on it straight away.”
Froome said this Vuelta line-up was the strongest he’s ever had, and they delivered for their captain Saturday. Sky might have only finished with the minimum five across the line, but it was enough to take the first jabs at their rivals.
Orica-Scott kept it close, crossing the line fifth at 17 seconds back, with the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves limiting their losses to Sky to just eight seconds. Many of the other favorites are already on the back seat right from the gun.
Dennis, meanwhile, finished off another superb team time trial effort by BMC to become the first Australian since Michael Matthews in 2014 to wear the red leader’s jersey.
“Smooth is fast,” Dennis said. “That’s always the rule in team time trials. You’re only as fast as your last guy, so we work to keep it together.”
BMC powered over the 13.7km course that saw more than a few riders hit the deck on a technical route that swept around Nimes’ Roman jewels, including a passage through the center of the 1st Century Roman arena. Cannondale-Drapac’s Joe Dombrowski hit the deck in training on the technical exit from the arena, but was not seriously injured.
BMC finished with six riders across the line, including American Tejay van Garderen, stopping the clock six seconds faster than Quick-Step and Sunweb. Froome’s Sky boys were nine seconds slower.
Dennis said the team was forced to regroup following the surprise news this week that 2008 Olympic road champion Samuel Sánchez tested positive, and would not be racing.
“It was shocking,” Dennis said. “We didn’t know about until we got back from training. You hear about those things happening on other teams, but when it happens on yours, it’s surreal. We cannot victimize him yet. We have to wait for his B-sample. Let’s hope for the good of the sport it comes up a different result than his A-sample.”
The Vuelta’s French adventure continues Sunday with the 203.4km second stage from Nimes to Gruissan. The mostly flat stage along the windy expanses of the exposed Mediterranean coast should see the first bunch sprint of this Vuelta.
Crosswinds could kick up, perhaps giving the GC teams a chance to try to split the bunch. If it’s Team Sky dropping the hammer, it certainly won’t come as a surprise.