Vuelta a Espana

Nibali, Rodríguez both optimistic on Vuelta a Espana GC battle; podium still up for grabs

Monday's queen stage could determine the winner of this Vuelta a Espana

Sunday’s battle up Covadonga was a stalemate ahead of the real shoot-out that’s expected for Monday’s three-climb “queen stage” ending atop the Cotobello debut summit at the Vuelta a España.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) remained virtually tied following Sunday’s soggy slug up the Lagos de Covadonga summit. With a breakaway sucking up all the finish-line time bonuses, both turned the screws a bit to test for weakness but ended up crossing the line with the same time, marked by the equally impressive Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia).

Nibali retained his four-second lead on Rodríguez while Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) could only scratch back 11 seconds on the two leaders despite a hard dig to remain third, now 39 seconds back, though his big effort did tighten his grip on a possible podium spot.

Nibali said he was only thinking about retaining the leader’s jersey and thanked his Liquigas teammates for solid work on the steep and grueling Covadonga climb.

“I didn’t do the same mistake as in Andorra when I tried to follow Mosquera and I burned myself. I’ve only looked at saving my leadership,” Nibali told reporters at the line Sunday. “My team has done a great job for that. They have ridden in the front from the start till the bottom of the climb, Oliver Zaugg and Roman Kreuziger have done the final part. We have coped with the situation really well. I’ve set a regular pace all the way up. My back wheel slipped with about three kilometres to go. That has been about my only worry of the day.”

Nibali said he’s not too worried about Mosquera, but admits that Rodríguez is the man to beat in this Vuelta.

“I’ve been more concerned about Sastre’s attack than Mosquera’s, but Roman has done the maximum effort at the right time. He’s been brilliant. I have never been scared of Mosquera. Look, he has done five kilometres of climbing flat out, and what’s his benefit? 11 seconds … That’s no big deal for me,” Nibali explained. “This is not the first time I’m leading a big race but this time I strongly hope to bring the jersey till the end. There are many more stages to come. I want to live it day by day. I bet tomorrow’s stage will be quite similar as today’s. There are many more climbs but I’m very confident in the work of my team. I want to arrive at the time trial with about the same advantage I have now.”

Nibali’s advantage against the clock will allow him to ride defensively in Monday’s showdown at Cotobello and put the pressure on Katusha’s Rodríguez to attack. Nibali can count on taking time on Rodríguez in Wednesday’s lone individual time trial of this year’s Vuelta, a long, flat 46km course where Nibali could take two or perhaps even three minutes on his most dangerous GC rival.

Rodríguez admits as much and promises to go on the attack, something he didn’t want to risk Sunday.

“Nibali and Liquigas were very strong today. I would have liked to have attacked, but I was having a hard time just staying on his wheel,” Rodríguez said. “Today’s stage was very fast and with the rain and cooler temperatures, I really didn’t feel at my best. Tomorrow is a better day for me. I know I need to take time on Nibali if I want to win this Vuelta.”

Rodríguez says he’s licking his lips for Saturday’s penultimate climb up the Bola del Mundo, where he hopes to be able to ride away with the Vuelta.

“I want to try to take time at Cotobello and limit my losses in the time trial,” he continued. “The Bola del Mundo is perfect for me. The final three kilometers are very steep. We went to investigate them and I really liked what I saw. It’s a climb that can decide everything in the Vuelta. Nothing is decided in this Vuelta.”

Behind the leading duo, there’s quite a fight for the final podium spot. Mosquera looks strong in the climbs so far and wants nothing more than to finish on the podium in Madrid after coming close the past few Vueltas.

Xavier Tondo (Cervélo) saw his podium hopes take a blow Sunday when he forfeited nearly two minutes to Mosquera and tumbled to fifth at 2:30 back. Teammate Carlos Sastre, now ninth at 4:29 back, admitted Sunday that now all he wants is to try to win a stage.

Four riders – Velits, Tondo, Nicholas Roche and Frank Schleck – are separated by just 19 seconds, but might be too far back, with Velits best-placed in fourth at 2:29 back, to be a real threat for the podium. Tondo is the best time trialist of the quartet, but he seems to be losing his spark in the climbs.

Unless something extraordinary happens, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions), riding steady in the mountains, seems too far adrift at eighth at 3:48 back to be a podium threat. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) is closing in on a possible top-10 Vuelta finish after a solid ride Sunday to climb in 11th overall at 6:05 back.