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Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) was surprised as anyone that he won Wednesday’s 46km time trial at the Vuelta a España.
A change in wind direction helped him against earlier starters, but there’s no arguing that Velits turned in an exceptional performance to beat the likes of two-time Vuelta a España champion Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank).
“This is the first time I have won a time trial,” Velits said Wednesday. “I was feeling good this morning and I wanted to go as well as I could. To win is a surprise. I am very happy.”
Velits’ extraordinary effort revived his GC hopes and he surged back into podium contention, settling into third place at 1:59 back. While overall victory might be beyond his grasp, he hopes to fight to keep a podium spot when the Vuelta ends Sunday in Madrid.
“I will give everything to keep this podium spot. I know it will be very hard. The final mountain stage is perhaps the hardest in all the Vuelta,” Velits continued. “I struggled the other day in the mountains (Cotobello), but I hope to ride like I was during the other climbing stages in this Vuelta. I would be very happy if I could finish on the podium.”
Velits had been among the most consistent riders throughout what’s been a wild and unpredictable Vuelta, but got derailed during the four-climb, queen stage to Cotobello on Monday. Velits got dropped early in the stage, fought his way back to the lead group for the final climb and then became disconnected again, losing more than three minutes.
In Wednesday’s time trial, he gained back all that and more against most of his GC rivals. He shot back up the leaderboard, moving from sixth to third.
Velits has a fairly tight grip on the podium. Fourth-place Frank Schleck is 1:44 behind Velits, while three others – Joaquim Rodriguez, Xavier Tondo and Tom Danielson – are just an additional 10 seconds back.
Velits will have to be the rider he was up Peña Cabarga and Lagos de Covadonga – and not the one who struggled up Cotobello – if he hopes to finish among the places of honor in Madrid.
“We’re hopeful Peter can finish on the podium,” said HTC-Columbia sport director Tristan Hoffman. “He’s been holding up pretty well in what’s a very hard Vuelta. Even the other day, he wasn’t standing still. It won’t be easy. There are some good riders all aiming for the podium.”
If Velits hangs on, he will become the first Slovakian rider to stand on the podium of a three-week grand tour.
The victory also marks the 100th of the year for HTC-Columbia’s men’s and women’s teams.
“It’s really nice to be able to reach a special number like 100 victories in 2010 with such an important win,” said HTC-Columbia team manager Rolf Aldag in a team release. “A victory in the time trial of the Vuelta is pretty unique. Peter could hold onto third, because the chance of being on the podium of the Vuelta could motivate him to find that little bit extra in the last mountain stage of the race [on Saturday]. Whatever happens, though, he’s pulled off an exceptional result, and we’re very proud of him.”