This article was originally published on cyclingnews.com.
Vincenzo Nibali’s bid to become the first rider since Alberto Contador in 2008 to win the Giro and Vuelta in the same year got off to an ideal start on Saturday as the Sicilian’s Astana squad took an impressive victory in the opening team time trial.
Nibali punched the air as he crossed the line in second place behind Janez Brajkovic - the Slovenian will be back in the Vuelta lead seven years after he held it for a couple of days in the first week of the 2006 race - and the 2013 Giro winner arguably was right to be so pleased.
Astana not only had finished 10 seconds ahead of RadioShack-Leopard, led by no less a time trial great than Fabian Cancellara, and 16 seconds up on third-placed Omega Pharma-Quickstep, the longstanding provisional leaders of the Vuelta’s opening test.
In just over 27 kilometres of racing, the Sicilian has gained significant time on all his main rivals: the closest place are Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao - whose Sky squad took fourth 22 seconds back. Nibali is now 29 seconds up on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar, fifth) and a whopping 58 seconds on Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha, twelfth). For a stage which in previous years has done little more than kickstart the Vuelta into action, this was a powerful start indeed.
Astana were the last team to start the technical, wind-blasted 27.4 kilometre team time trial - far longer than the usual opening TTT in the Vuelta - which gave them the advantage of knowing the other teams times and being able to grade their strength accordingly. But most importantly from the moment they roared off the mussel-growing raft or batea which acted as a floating host to the opening metres of the Vuelta, the light-blue squad were clearly acting as a rocksolid solid unit.
Unlike other squads which shed riders rapidly on the deceptively demanding course - essentially flat but very technical and with a strong tailwind making it difficult for riders to regain contact if they even lost a few metres - Astana still had seven riders as they roared into the stage finish at Sanxenxo. Then as they sped past the holidaymakers lying soaking up the late evening sunshine and romped round the last left hand bend under the finishing gantry, Nibali’s squad was still only down to six.
That Astana had carefully calculated their effort as a group was clear in other ways: in the first time check after the first, technical nine kilometres the Kazakh squad were just four seconds off the pace behind overwhelming favourites Omega Pharma-Quickstep. Then at the second time check, a further eleven kilometres on much flatter, less complicated terrain, they had shaved off another eight seconds to go 12 ahead. In the last segment, rather than risk losing riders - as happened most notably to Katusha - Astana then kept it steady in the final dash for the line.
“I was feeling in pain, but it was a pain you want,” Brajkovic said afterwards, “for the first time this year I felt really good.”
However, he confirmed he would be working for Vincenzo Nibali and has no overall aspirations himself.
“He’s the number one favourite and I will support him the best I can. I will be wearing this jersey tomorrow [Sunday] but I will pass it to him soon and hopefully he’ll wear it all the way through to Madrid.”
“It was a great team time trial,” Nibali said afterwards, “although it’s a long way to Madrid.”
Valverde seemed determined to see the cycling’s equivalent of a half-full pint glass, rather than a half-empty one, saying that he was pleased with gaining time on Rodriguez.
The Katusha leader recognised they “had not got off to the ideal start. Our group got split up early on, which wasn’t great.”
Purito can take some comfort that Katusha, who finished with five men, was far from being the only team in trouble: even last year’s winners Movistar lost Imanol Erviti - the 2012 leader - early on, as well as Jose Ivan Gutierrez, the former national time trial champion. Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen and Christian Knees, normally a powerhouse in these sorts of stages, lost contact mid-stage although the British squad finished solidly and closest of all the teams containing overall favourites to Astana.
“The problem was that the tailwinds were so strong that when you were drafting behind the lead guys, it felt like you weren’t recovering because you were going so fast,” explained Brajkovic.
After such a strong start, Astana will soon be put to the test again - on Sunday’s 11 kilometre final climb to the Alto do Monte da Groba. But for now, if the Kazakh team and Nibali were already top favourites, after Saturday’s strong start, that is even more the case.