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Nibali takes pole position in new-look Vuelta GC

Sicilian takes the GC lead, but three men still hold hope of upsetting the Giro d'Italia champion in Madrid

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LEON, Spain (VN) — With his solid performance in Wednesday’s individual time trial, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) took pole position going into the decisive final climbs at the Vuelta a España.

The 38.8-kilometer race against the clock certainly will not serve as a race-breaker, but it changed the dynamic of the GC fight going into the second half of the Vuelta.

Overnight leader Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) was no match against Nibali, ceding the red jersey and slipping into a tie with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) for the final podium spot, 46 seconds back.

As expected, Nibali posted an excellent ride against the clock and reclaimed the red leader’s jersey to carry huge momentum into the Pyrénées looming this weekend.

Despite suffering a wasp sting in training on Tuesday, the Italian took a solid GC win heading into the decisive final climbing stages in the second half of the Vuelta.

“It was a complicated time trial, with the first part climbing, and the second half very fast. I didn’t have many problems because the descent wasn’t too complicated,” said Nibali, one of the best descenders in the peloton. “I knew that Valverde would have a good time trial, and despite his puncture, that’s what he did.”

Horner pushes past bee incident, aims for tactical battle in Pyrenees

As he predicted, overnight leader Horner suffered against the clock, forfeiting the lead to his Italian rival in a hilly, power course to drop to fourth overall. Horner, who said a bee flew into his mouth during the stage, called the race less than perfect.

“I got a bee in my mouth. It was scary. I couldn’t get it out. I tried to swallow it, eventually, I coughed it up,” Horner said at the finish line. “I felt good this morning, but I kept it close to Nibali. I have a good shot at retaking the red jersey.”

Horner, however, said this Vuelta is far from over.

“I have to be content because my goal was to stay within one minute of Nibali and I did it. If it were flatter, I would have lost even more time,” Horner told Spanish television. “This Vuelta isn’t over. You have to be very tactical in the big mountains. It’s going to be one on one. It’s not like the Tour, with one strong rider and a very strong team. I think the one that wins this Vuelta will be the rider who has the best luck and the best tactics.”

Speaking to VeloNews on Tuesday’s rest day, Horner confessed that he expected to lose the red jersey. What he hoped was that he would still be within striking distance, and at less than a minute back, it was mission accomplished for the 41-year-old.

“If I lose the jersey in the time trial, you cannot say that I cannot win this Vuelta,” Horner said. “I see the time trial as damage control. I know I have good climbing legs right now. Let’s get into the mountains and let’s see if the legs can come good. I still have solid, very good chances.”

Nibali takes command

Nibali, meanwhile, delivered a performance that everyone expected, and was top among the favorites to bolster his chances to win his second Vuelta title.

Stopping the clock at 1:25 behind stage winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack), the “Shark of Messina” turned his 43-second deficit to Horner into a 33-second lead to ever impressive Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), who continues to deliver consistent performances and settled into second.

The 38.8km time trial, featuring a Cat. 3 climb midway through the course followed by a big-gear power descent, turned into a race on two fronts.

Cancellara took a morale-boosting 37-second victory over two-time world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), giving “Spartacus” a big win ahead of a likely showdown between the pair at the world time trial championship later this month.

In the battle for the GC, Nibali took advantage of his time trialing prowess to take it to the climbers.

Roche confirmed his resilience to settle into second and revive his podium hopes, while Valverde also put down an excellent ride despite puncturing early on, stopping the clock seventh, just 27 seconds slower than Nibali.

Valverde climbed into a tie with Horner at 46 seconds back, a margin that bolsters the Spaniard’s confidence going into the mountains.

“I have to be satisfied with my performance, despite the puncture,” Valverde said. “I had some trouble gaining my rhythm early on, and after changing the wheel, I was able to set a good pace. Considering what happened, I am content. Now we are heading into more favorable terrain.”

Rodriguez, others left to battle for the podium

Others ceded more time that will be even harder to recover. Top among them was pre-race favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), falling to 2:33 behind Nibali, in fifth overall.

On Tuesday, Rodríguez admitted that he didn’t have the legs to win this Vuelta, but he vowed to keep fighting for the final podium.

“I lost a lot of time, but there’s still a lot of mountains ahead of us, and if those in front slip back, well, there’s hope,” Rodríguez said. “It’s not going to be easy, but I will fight on favorable terrain that lies in waiting.”

Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) had a great ride, third on the stage, which bumped him into podium range in sixth, at 2:44 back. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), never worth much against the clock, settled into seventh, at 2:55 back.

The time trial helped slice the GC into two parts. Nibali, Valverde, Horner, and Roche can all still fight to try to win the Vuelta, while the likes of Rodríguez, Basso, and Thibaut Pinot (, eighth, at 3:55, can aspire to try to reach the podium.

Thursday’s stage presents the likely last chance for the sprinters before reaching Madrid, while Friday’s stage into Castelldefels, with the Cat. 1 Alto del Rat Penat with just over 50km to go, will likely be one for the stage hunters.

The real fun begins Saturday, with a trio of long, old school climbing stages across the Pyrénées. That’s where the Vuelta will likely be won and lost. Though Nibali has regained the red jersey, nothing’s decided yet in this 68th Tour of Spain.