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LEON, Spain (VN) – Perhaps it’s ironic that in the most mountainous Vuelta a España in a generation, with no less than 10 mountaintop finishes, that the lone individual time trial will play such a decisive role in the crowning the eventual winner.
The 39.4km race against the clock in the green hills of Galicia will not likely crown the eventual winner, not with six more summits to race, but it will surely change the tactical dynamic of the race as the Vuelta enters its most difficult and challenging terrain.
Standing front and center as the rider who has the most to gain in Wednesday’s TT is second-place man Chris Froome (Sky).
Easily the best time trialist of the four leading men hogging the GC standings, Froome’s overall chances hinge on knocking it out of the ballpark tomorrow.
If he’s the same Froome that won the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games and was only beaten by eventual Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins in July, Froome could take important gains that could carry him all the way to Madrid cloaked in the red leader’s jersey.
“I believe that I am better than my rivals in the time trial,” Froome said on Monday’s rest day. “I am satisfied with how the Vuelta’s gone so far with Sky. We came to win the Vuelta and, up to now, our objective remains intact.”
Froome will likely bounce into the leader’s jersey tomorrow. He is expected to be able to erase the 53-second difference to race leader Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and be able to fend off Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), who hovers just seven seconds in arrears.
All that is assuming Froome is the same rider he was in July and early August. There have been more than a few indications that he doesn’t have the same zip in his legs that he did more than a month ago. He’s ceded time to Rodríguez in every decisive stage since Valdezcaray, slipping from just one second back to 53 ticks adrift.
Froome admits that the short, explosive uphill finales that have pocked the first week of racing are not to his liking, but that’s just the kind of climb he won on at the Tour de France at Belle Filles in the Vosges. The longer climbs in Asturias that loom this weekend are even steeper, so Froome is hoping to build a big lead and then hang on.
On a good day, Froome should be able to take out at least one-and-a-half minutes — about three seconds per kilometer — to Rodríguez and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), fourth at 1:07 back, but that’s no guarantee in Wednesday’s hilly course.
There’s a steep, third-category climb midway through the stage and the roads of Galicia are narrow, twisting and up-and-down all the way from start to finish. That should help Rodríguez and Valverde limit their losses.
Froome has clearly been measuring his efforts and waiting for Wednesday’s time trial to pounce.
If Froome has an exceptional ride, and takes two or even three minutes out of his GC rivals, he would clearly be in the driver’s seat. With a lead topping one minute or more, Froome could ride defensively in the mountains, mark the inevitable attacks from Contador and play for the finish-line time bonuses to defend his lead.
If the gap is smaller, then the Vuelta is still very much wide open.
Both Rodríguez and Valverde know they will cede time. How much remains to be seen.
Rodríguez has made great strides in the time trial, evidenced by his heroic ride on the final day of the Giro d’Italia when he ended up losing the pink jersey by just 16 seconds in a final-day showdown with Ryder Hesjedal.
“Purito” admits he will never be a specialist, but this Vuelta course presents his best chance to win a grand tour, and he’s going to go full-gas to keep his GC aspirations alive.
“The time trial is critical for Purito,” said Katusha sport director Valerio Piva. “If he can only lose two-to-three minutes, then everything is still possible. He is riding strong and he is picking up time bonuses. We have to see how he rides, but we are hopeful.”
Valverde, too, should be able to limit the bleeding on the sinuous course. Still steaming after losing 50 seconds when he crashed in echelons in stage 4, Valverde vows to fight all the way to Madrid in this Vuelta that wasn’t even on his race calendar until things went badly in the Tour.
With defending champion Juanjo Cobo out of the picture, Movistar is riding to support Valverde. Already a winner of two stages, Valverde is looking very strong, so a solid time trial ride shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.
Then there’s Contador, who is no slouch in the time trial. On a good day, Contador could even challenge Froome on a course like the one they will face tomorrow in Galicia.
Like Froome, no one knows which Contador will show up. Will it be the same “Pistolero” that took down Fabian Cancellara in the Annecy time trial at the 2009 Tour de France? Or is it the Contador that is still struggling to find his legs after coming off his clenbuterol ban?
Valverde even suggested that Contador is riding “nervously,” hinting that even Contador isn’t sure of where his form is.
Contador vows to attack no matter what happens in the time trial, but how much he will have to attack in Asturias will largely hinge on tomorrow’s outcome. If Contador stays close to Froome, or even tops him and takes the leader’s jersey, then the Spaniard will be able to carefully gauge his efforts and race more surgically.
If he’s down a minute or more to Froome, then Contador knows he will have to attack, and attack often.
“The tactics that I will adopt for the mountains will depend on what happens tomorrow in the time trial,” Contador said after Tuesday’s stage. “Tomorrow could be good for any one of us now at the top (of the GC). I am confident that I will go well and go for it in the hard stages still to come.”
If the first half of the Vuelta is any indication, the differences between the leading four by sunset Wednesday shouldn’t be so large that the life is sucked out of this race.