- Jan 3, 2005
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) joked about how long he expects to keep the red leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España, which he snagged in Monday’s final mountaintop shootout by just one second.
“Well, for sure they cannot take it away from me tomorrow,” Rodríguez said with a smile, referring to Tuesday’s rest day.
Monday’s brutal mountain stage across Asturias, featuring 5,000 vertical meters of climbing, was the last chance for the climbers to shake Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin).
Astana, Katusha, and Tinkoff-Saxo all piled on over the three final climbs packed in during just 45km of racing, but Dumoulin stood tall. He ceded more time, slipping back 1:51 to Rodríguez in fourth, but he was exultant at the finish line. Dumoulin knows with a strong time trial he can not only assure himself his first grand tour podium, but very likely overall victory.
“It was really good on the final climb. I was better than expected,” Dumoulin said. “I was never really in trouble. I had great legs today. Now I need a big time trial.”
Everyone knows that Dumoulin, third in last year’s world time trial championship, is superior against the clock compared to Rodíguez, Fabio Aru (Astana), now second at one second back, and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), the Polish climber third at 1:35 back. The climbers put Dumoulin on the ropes in three consecutive climbing stages across northern Spain, but they could not deliver the knockout punch.
Monday’s final climb to the Ermita de Alba was so narrow and so steep — 22 percent at its harshest — that it was all but impossible to attack. Frank Schleck delivered Trek Factory Racing’s third Vuelta stage win out of a breakaway, while Mikel Landa (Astana) set a searing pace to keep a lid on things in the GC group until the red flag. Rodríguez finally pounced with about 800 meters to go, but it wasn’t enough. Rodríguez snatched back two seconds on Aru to grab the leader’s jersey, but could only squeeze 27 seconds out of Dumoulin.
The veteran Spaniard, who’s stood on podium in all three grand tours but has never won one, admitted it will be difficult to win the Vuelta.
“It’s going to be very complicated,” Rodríguez said. “Dumoulin looked good today, even better than yesterday, and he will have a recovery day tomorrow before the time trial Wednesday. We can all expect he will have a very good ride.”
All eyes turn to Wednesday’s 38.7km time trial around Burgos on a course that clearly favors Dumoulin. The course features a few rollers, as well as a short but steep kicker around the castle above Burgos in the final 5km, but it’s a power course with a chance of gusting winds ideal for specialists.
Dumoulin has been digging deep throughout this Vuelta, so he won’t be as fresh as he would have been if he was just focusing on winning the time trial, but everyone expects him to take time. How much? It depends on whom you ask.
Giant-Alpecin is optimistic that Dumoulin could take as much as three minutes. Everyone points to the opening stage of this year’s Tour de France, when Dumoulin took 1:18 out of Rodríguez in just 13.8km on the streets of Utrecht.
“Tom could take four seconds per kilometer,” said Giant-Alpecin sport director Addy Engels. “Of course, this time trial comes much later in the Vuelta. Everyone is tired, and so is Tom. It’s about who is strongest.”
Strength does matter in late-race time trials, but so does technique, and Dumoulin has one of the best positions of any rider in this Vuelta. With riders such as Chris Froome (Sky) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) out of the race, Dumoulin will also be favored to win the stage, along with Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka.
Before this Vuelta, all six of Dumoulin’s previous career wins came against the clock. His hilltop stage victory ahead of Froome at Cumbre del Sol in stage 9 confirmed him as a podium threat for the overall race. Yet in an 18.3km time trial — albeit over much hillier terrain and ending with a 1km climb — at the Tour of the Basque Country in April, Rodríguez finished just four seconds behind Dumoulin.
“Purito will fight with everything he has to win this Vuelta,” said Katusha sport director José Azevedo at the start Monday morning. “Dumoulin is still a danger if he is within three minutes.”
Rodríguez was quick to point out that it won’t be easy to finish on the podium of this Vuelta. He’s only one second ahead of Aru, and 1:35 ahead of Majka. All three of those riders are climbers who can be wildly inconsistent against the clock. Majka will be riding to defend a podium spot, while Aru and Rodríguez still believe they have a chance to win the overall.
“We need more than we have now,” said Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli about the differences to Dumoulin. “A time trial in the third week is always difficult to predict. Dumoulin will be tired, but so is the entire peloton. It’s all about who recovers best before Burgos.”
Rodríguez said he believes whoever rides out of Burgos with the red leader’s jersey will win the Vuelta. That depends on how big the time gaps are.
On paper, Thursday’s and Friday’s stage are ideal for breakaways, but if the GC is still very close, the top teams will duke it out. And Saturday’s penultimate stage over four first-category climbs has ambush written all over it.
Dumoulin will be hoping to take three minutes in the time trial, and end discussion once and for all about who can win the Vuelta. But if Dumoulin, or someone else, is leading by just a handful of seconds, the battle for the red jersey could go all the way to Madrid.
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