Sometimes those clichés ring true. Every second counts, and only three separate new leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Fabio Aru (Astana) following Wednesday’s gripping time trial at the Vuelta a España.
With three road stages left before Sunday’s final-day parade in Madrid, this Vuelta isn’t decided yet. The climbers couldn’t deliver the knockout punch to eliminate Dumoulin in the mountains, but the Dutch sensation couldn’t finish off Aru in the hilly, 38.7km time trial around Burgos to cement the Vuelta overall. Just three ticks of the second hand separate Dumoulin and Aru.
“The Vuelta isn’t decided yet,” said Aru, who started the stage one second behind overnight leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and ended the stage still in second, now three seconds behind Dumoulin.
“I have to go for it, especially in the three stages before Madrid,” said Aru, who time-trialed to 10th, 1:53 slower than Dumoulin. “The difference is very small.”
Dumoulin held up his end of the bargain. Starting the stage fourth overall, at 1:51 back, the six-foot-one Dutchman was heavily favored to win the stage and take a commanding lead in the overall. Dumoulin blitzed the first half of the course, eliminating the struggling Rodríguez, who dipped to third at 1:15 back, but Aru held tough over the challenging, more technical final 10km.
Aru, who held the lead until Rodríguez wrestled it away Monday by one second, proved he can defend well against the specialists. With a strong closing 10km, he salvaged his GC hopes for the Vuelta.
Dumoulin agreed, and repeated the day’s refrain: “Vuelta isn’t over yet. It’s only three seconds to Aru, so I am a little bit worried. Right now, I am going to celebrate this victory with my teammates. I have won two stages and I have race leader’s jersey. I could not have imagined that when this Vuelta started.”
Dumoulin has been the revelation of this Vuelta. After crashing out of the Tour de France in the stage 3 pileup that also took out Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), and others, Dumoulin came to the Spanish grand tour to hone his form ahead of the world championships and to put a grand tour into his legs going into the off-season.
He quickly proved he had climbing legs, riding to second behind Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) in stage 2, and then delivered another surprise by beating back Chris Froome (Sky) on the even steeper hilltop finale at stage 9. Dumoulin held tough through Andorra and three savage climbing stages in the Asturias to start Wednesday’s time trial as the top favorite.
Dumoulin is poised for the podium, and could become Holland’s first grand tour winner in more than three decades. The last Dutch rider to win a grand tour was Joop Zoetemelk in the 1980 Tour, and the last Dutch grand tour podium was Erik Breukink with third in the 1990 Tour.
It won’t be easy. There are no more mountaintop finales — something that plays into Dumoulin’s favor — yet the three remaining road stages will prove very tricky to control for his out-gunned Giant-Alpecin squad.
Thursday’s 204km stage 18 from Roa to Riaza across the windy northern meseta features rough roads, lumpy terrain, and a first-category climb just 13km from the finish.
Friday’s 185.5km stage 19 to Avila features a second-category climb with 30km to go and a steep, explosive hilltop finale along the spectacular walls of Avila. Even the smallest gap in the peloton could mean a few seconds either way.
Saturday’s 178.5km stage 20 up and over the mountains north of Madrid will prove more complicated for Dumoulin. The stage features four category 1 climbs, and is ideal for a Spanish-style ambush.
Dumoulin will have his hands full to withstand the inevitable attacks from his still-ambitious rivals. His Giant-Alpecin team came to the Vuelta to support sprinter John Degenkolb, and Dumoulin was left on his own in every major climb so far in this Vuelta. Up to now, Dumoulin has been able to limit his losses, but with such a narrow lead, even the smallest of hiccup could prove disastrous.
“It’s definitely possible [to win],” Dumoulin said. “It will be very stressful, but it’s the same for everyone. I will try to defend, and we will see what happens.”
Even Rodríguez vowed to keep fighting. The veteran Spaniard, who’s never won a grand tour, tried in vain to defend, but ceded 3:01 to Dumoulin to drop to third at 1:15 back. Rodríguez was hoping to post a similar ride as Aru, but he ended up losing one more minute that he expected.
“This is not over yet,” Rodríguez said. “It was a strange time trial. I felt better on the flats than I did on the climbs. There are three hard days to go, and we’re going to keep fighting, give everything, and why not, try to take down Dumoulin”
And even Movistar promises to get in on the party. Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde each had excellent time trials to revive their podium hopes, with Quintana slotting into fifth at 2:53 back, and Valverde sixth at 3:15 back. “The podium is still not decided,” Valverde said. “We’ll fight for the podium,” said Quintana.
The Vuelta is typically the most hotly contested grand tour of the year, and the 70th edition is living up to its reputation. With three stages to go, the red jersey fight isn’t over yet.