By Andrew Hood
José Iván Gutiérrez (Illes Balears) surged into the overall lead at the Vuelta a Murcia on Friday after ripping through an impressive early season win in the 21.3km individual time trial.
Gutiérrez – a four-time Spanish national time trial champion and world championship silver medalist last year in Madrid – showed off the best time-trial position of any Spanish rider going, taking more than 1 minute out of teammate Alejandro Valverde during Stage 3.
Also showing good early season form was Alexandre Vinokourov, making his presence felt for the first time this season with a strong performance.
The Kazakh stopped the clock just 10 seconds shy of Gutiérrez’s winning time and just missed his first victory for his new Liberty Seguros team. Another four seconds adrift in third was time-trial specialist Michael Rich (Gerolsteiner).
Both Vinokourov and Rich were well out of GC contention following the Thursday’s bumpy stage, leaving the Spanish hotshots to duke it out on the flat, out-and-back route around the fine wine-growing region of Jumilla in Spain’s Murcia region.
Typically bathed in sun this time of year, Murcia presented the riders with a cloudy, cool day for one of the longer time trials of the young 2006 season. The wind kicked up as well for the later starting riders.
With the win, Gutiérrez takes the pole position going into Saturday’s 148.6km climbing stage ending on the steep Collado de Bermejo.
Santos González (3 Molinos) moved into second at 15 seconds back with David Bernabeu (Comunitat Valenciana) in third at 29 seconds adrift. Both are typically superior climbers than Gutiérrez and could vault into the overall leader’s jersey barring a major breakaway.
Jan Hruska (3 Molinas) is still within range at 40 seconds back while overnight leader Angel Vicioso (Liberty Seguros) slipped to fifth at 43 seconds back after being out-gunned by Gutiérrez.
Pre-race favorite Valverde, winner of Thursday’s nine-up sprint, fell to sixth at 1:05 and will have a hard time erasing that much time against his motivated rivals, especially those from 3 Molinos hungry to score a win for their locally based sponsor.