SANXENXO, Spain (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) rode himself into pole position for the leader’s jersey in the opening day of the Vuelta a España.
Or at least he hopes so.
Janez Brajkovic took the Vuelta’s red leader’s jersey as Astana barnstormed to an impressive victory that saw significant gaps between the GC contenders in a windy, challenging 27.4km team time trial Sunday.
Powered by four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, RadioShack stopped the clock 10 seconds slower for second place, a result that Horner is hoping can set him up for a run at the red jersey in Sunday’s mountaintop finale ending atop the Cat. 1 Alto do Monte da Groba.
“With that mountain stage tomorrow, maybe I can take the jersey. We rode today also thinking about tomorrow,” Horner said after the stage. “I haven’t raced in Europe in five months. The legs are good. The form’s there. I can dream about taking the jersey tomorrow.”
Those comments came minutes before Astana roared across the line with a performance that could spoil not only Horner’s plans for the red jersey, but could turn the Vuelta upside down on the very first day.
Brajkovic led Astana across the line to snag the jersey, but team captain Vincenzo Nibali takes a 10-second lead to Horner and even more to everyone else.
Brajkovic said he plans to pass along the leader’s jersey, not to rival Horner, but to Astana teammate and captain Nibali.
“I will wear this jersey tomorrow, but I will pass it to [Nibali] tomorrow. And we hope it will stay like that for the rest of the race,” Brajkovic said. “I am here to work for Nibali. We are all here to support him.”
Saturday’s strong performance by Astana put everyone on guard, with the team time trial creating some serious gaps among the GC contenders.
Sky rode well, placing Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán close to the top at 22 seconds back with fourth in the stage. Despite losing Beñat Intxausti with a mechanical problem early in the race, Movistar was close, with fifth at 29 seconds back.
Though he ceded time to Nibali, Alejandro Valverde tried to look at the bright side by the gains he took on others, especially archrival Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who lost 59 seconds to Astana.
“It’s obvious that a half minute to Nibali is an important advantage, but this Vuelta will be very long. You have to look at the positive side, and look at the 30 seconds to Purito,” Valverde said.
“Tomorrow is a stage to be very careful, not only for the climb, but also wind. We saw the climb Thursday, and it’s hard at the bottom, then evens out, and steep again at the top.”
The Vuelta typically starts with a shorter team time trial, usually around 15-20km. This year’s course, coupled with strong tailwinds, made for a very fast race that favored the big engines, like Astana, RadioShack, and Sky.
The losses were even worse for others. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who comes to this Vuelta with podium ambitions, ceded 1:25, time that will be difficult to recover against the rival climbers.
Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), the Colombian who rode to fifth in the Giro d’Italia, lost 1:59, while Igor Antón, riding in Euskaltel-Euskadi’s final grand tour, ceded 2:43. Both of them lost contact with their respective teams.
“We cannot be satisfied, but the goal here is to try to win some stages and be ready for the worlds,” Betancur said. “There are several stages that fit me well, so I hope to get better as the race develops.”
Sunday’s second stage should see a thrilling battle for the leader’s jersey as the GC contenders get their first chance to show off their legs.
The 11km final climb high above the spectacularly rugged Galicia coastline features an average grade of 5.6 percent, with ramps as steep as 10 percent. But whether Horner will be strong enough to take 10 seconds out of Nibali remains to be seen.
The climb stair-steps up the mountain, with the steepest sections at the bottom and at the top. A mid-climb saddle will give riders a chance to regroup before launching the final attacks.
If a breakaway does not stay clear, it’s likely that a reduced group of GC riders could arrive to sprint for the stage victory.
Time bonuses are also in play at the line (20, 12, and 6 for the top three), so it is possible for Horner to leapfrog Astana, but Nibali seems up for the fight.
The reigning Giro champion comes to the Vuelta motivated and ambitious. Though he faltered in his return to racing at the Tour of Poland with a performance that had some wondering whether Nibali was up to the task, he rode to third overall at the Vuelta a Burgos in early August.
While he also has one eye on the world championships on Italian roads in late September, Saturday’s time trial performance proved Nibali is serious about his intentions to try to win the Vuelta.
“It was a great time trial. The team was fantastic, and I am happy for Janez because he’s had some bad luck this year,” Nibali said.
“My condition is good. The Vuelta is hard and long, and there are some difficult stages. We’ll see how it goes. I will take it day by day.”
If Nibali does take over the leader’s jersey Sunday, he could have it for a long time.
The remaining stages across Galicia do not represent serious GC challenges, and the course turns onto flatter country next week until it hits some steeper terrain in the mountains of southern Spain next weekend.
The Vuelta’s lone time trial, on a hilly, 38.8km course in stage 11 that clearly favors him against the Spanish mountain goats, could give Nibali a significant lead going into the Pyrénées at the end of week two.
That opens up the scenario that Nibali could hold the jersey all the way to Madrid.
Not bad for a guy who says he’s only “75 percent” coming into the Vuelta.