Jakob Fuglsang pulled on the leader’s jersey at a grand tour for the first time in his career on Saturday as Leopard Trek dominated the 13.5km team time trial along the Benidorm beachfront to open its Vuelta a España account in glorious style.
The Luxembourg outfit, led splendidly by a Fabian Cancellara resplendent in rainbow stripes, took the fastest intermediate time and maintained that sizzling pace under the baking Spanish sun to finish with a time of 16:30, which wasn’t to be bettered by any other team.
In second place was Liquigas-Cannondale, the Italian squad finishing in 16:34, five seconds ahead of HTC-Highroad, who managed a respectable 16:39. And with Cancellara and co setting their time early in proceedings, the stage became a shootout between them and the team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali.
While it was Leopard Trek who won out on the day, Nibali will be buoyed in his title defence by the performance of his teammates. Sagan crossed the line first but with Nibali already within touching distance of the leader’s jersey, his quest for a second consecutive title could hardly have started better.
The man in that leader’s jersey, Fuglsang, was a surprised recipient after the finish, explaining that he hadn’t expected to be the man at the front of the team as it crossed the line. “We didn’t talk about it at the start; the goal today was to do a good team time trial,” he said. “We knew we could win if we rode at our maximum and we’d have a chance.
“I went as hard as I could and thought that someone would pass me at the end but they didn’t.”
The 13.5km test along the Benidorm beachfront saw several teams challenged by the technical nature of the course and the pace required to stay near the front of the fast finishers. The biggest name to topple was Team Sky, as Bradley Wiggins’ tilt at the Vuelta title got off to a horrible start. The British squad rode along the beach with only four riders until Xavier Zandio regained contact and the quintet went on to finish 42 seconds behind Leopard Trek.
Fuglsang himself acknowledged the perils of the short yet demanding day in the saddle. “The course today had everything – there was a hard start and it was technical,” he said. “You had to be careful not to blow up the whole team and not to crash – Davide Viganò crashed at the top of the course.”
Others who crashed included David Blanco and Nick Nuyens, the latter coming down hard as the course dropped towards the beachfront and he would finish behind his Saxo Bank-Sungard teammates.
Another team to suffer on the day was RadioShack, as overall hopeful Janez Brajkovic suffered a mechanical just metres off the start ramp and slowed the American squad’s progress, resulting in a time of 16:59 – enough for 14th place.
While Saxo Bank endured a bad day, two of its former riders, Fuglsang and Cancellara, will now feature in Leopard Trek’s ambitions for the remainder of this Vuelta, as the Dane explained after the finish: “I’m going for the overall and will see how far I can go – my goal is the general classification. We have [Daniele] Bennati for the sprints and Fabian for the [individual] time trial,” he said.
Other notable performances came from Astana, who sat in second on the standings until HTC-Highroad and then Liquigas-Cannondale knocked them down to fourth, while Movistar rode a fast first intermediate time to do enough for fifth place by day’s end.
Skil-Shimano, a surprise inclusion in this year’s Vuelta a España, did themselves proud with eighth place after leading off the 22 teams in the day’s starting order. The Dutch outfit bettered more illustrious squads despite a slow start and with German sprinter Marcel Kittel in their line-up, they will be hoping to do even better tomorrow.
Fuglsang will wear the red jersey in tomorrow’s 171.5km journey from La Nucía to Playas de Orihuela, where the fast men are expected to dominate. His teammate Bennati will be aiming to prevail in his match-up against the likes of Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and Tom Boonen. The Italian has won stages and the points classification of the Vuelta a España in the past and will hope to resume his run of success with victory.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com