Vuelta Stage 16 reaction: Top 3 in GC look ahead to decisive stages, Nieve reflects on his win
Nibali has edge in individual time trial as rivals target Saturday's final mountain stage ...

Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez, back in the red jersey as leader of the Vuelta a España after race leader Vincenzo Nibali faded in the last two kilometres before the summit finish in Cotobello today, insists that the 33-second advantage he now holds over the Italian isn’t enough to prevent the Liquigas-Doimo rider taking back the overall lead in Wednesday’s 46km individual time trial, raising the prospect of an epic battle on the slopes of the Bola del Mundo near Madrid on Saturday.

Today’s stage was won by Mikel Nieve of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who rises to 11th on the general classification, with Fränk Schleck, who had launched a series of attacks off the front of the GC group after team mate Fabian Cancellara (below) had helped sap the strength of the others riding with them taking second to move fourth overall. Rodriguez finished in fourth place on the stage, behind Kevin De Weert of Quickstep who, along with Nieve, had been part of a breakaway group that had formed earlier in the 181.4km stage that had started in the Asturian port of Gijon.

“My lead over Nibali on the GC isn’t big enough before the time trial at Peñafiel,” said Rodriguez afterwards. “I have to lose the least time possible to keeping some chance and a few options for the stage to Bola del Mundo on Saturday,” he added. “Nibali is great time triallist, he’s better than me,” the Catalan rider continued.

“Every second will count before the last mountain stage,” he maintained. “I’ll have to ride the best time trial of my life. Tomorrow we’ll go and see the course during the rest day. Should I limit my loss to one and a half or two minutes, it could work – the hills of Bola del Mundo are very steep,” he insisted.

The 31-year old (pictured below) believes that it’s not just he and Nibali who are in with a chance of the overall title at the moment, however. “The fight for the red jersey isn’t a duel now,” he said. “Ezequiel Mosquera [of Xacobeo Galicia, who lies a further 20 seconds behind Nibali] isn’t a bad time triallist.”

The Katusha rider also revealed that he had bided his time today before attacking Nibali when he appeared most vulnerable. “Today at the beginning of the ascent to Cotobello, I realised that the attacks from Sastre, Danielson and Roche wouldn’t go far because Kreuziger was doing a wonderful job for Nibali,” he said. “When Mosquera attacked, Kreuziger followed again but I’ve seen that Nibali couldn’t react and I went flat out. The strongest rider in today’s stage was definitely Kreuziger,” he concluded.

Nibali admitted afterwards, “I knew it was going to be a demanding day and I had mentalised the idea of losing the red jersey. The very end of the climb was perfectly suitable for attacks from climbers like Rodriguez and Mosquera. I paid a bit for the efforts I accumulated in the past few days. I tried to handle the situation as well as I could and it’s okay like this. On Tuesday there is a rest day that will be precious and on Wednesday, there’s a time trial that could play to my advantage, then a big stage on Saturday, so the Vuelta remains wide open.”

Mosquera [pictured below with Nibali] joined Rodriguez in paying tribute to the efforts of Kreuziger in fighting for Nibali’s cause. “The final climb was fatal for everyone,” he said. “The rhythm imposed by Roman Kreuziger put all of us at the limit, he prevented all of us from attacking. At the end, I tried to save something from today’s stage. The outcome isn’t too bad. Considering how much I’ve suffered, I can’t complain.”

Kreuziger believes that Wedenesday’s time trial will favour Nibali, but admits that Saturday’s stage is likely to be the one that decides who will top the podium in Madrid on Sunday. “Vincenzo preferred to go at his own rhythm when attacks started with 1.5km to go,” the Czech rider explained.

“He defended his lead as a great captain, although Fränk Schleck managed to go away,” Kreuzider continued. “We haven’t kept the red jersey but I think the time trial is on our side. I think Vincenzo can still win the Vuelta but he’ll have to ride a great time trial because there’s another very hard mountain stage on Saturday at Bola del Mundo and we’ve seen today that a comfortable lead is necessary.”

Meanwhile stage winner Nieve refelected on a day on which Euskaltel-Euskadi were able to celebrate some good news just two days after then overall leader Igor Anton and team mate Egoi Martinez had crashed out of the race.

“After Igor Anton’s crash we felt it was the end of the world,” said Nieve. “Our directeurs sportifs told us we had to pass Sunday’s stage and put our minds back in the race before fighting again.”

He continued: “This stage to Cotobello with three difficult climbs gave us an occasion to put our heads up again. But we knew we had to attack from far. Juan Jose Oroz was in the early breakaway and I attacked in the Puerto de San Lorenzo together with Amets Txurruka. Oroz has waited for us and worked for us to come across to the lead group. In the Alto de la Cobertoria, Txurruka gave a lot. It was great team work.”

Nieve had done his homework on the finale of today’s stage, which benefited him as he attacked on the 10km ascent to the finish. “I knew the climb to Cotobello, I had done it at training in August with Igor [Anton] and Samuel Sanchez,” he explained.. “It helped me a lot today. The encouragements of the crowd and above all my directeurs sportifs have helped me forget the suffering.”

Today’s win is by far the biggest of the 25-year-old’s career, whose previous victories came in regional races three years ago before he progressed from the Orbea feeder team to the full Euskaltel-Euskadi squad, and he hopes it will help raise his profile locally.
“You know, I live in Leiza, a very small town in Navarre very close to San Sebastian,” he said. “The stars are the players of the traditional Basque sport (pelota). After the Vuelta I’ll have a dinner with them for sure. Maybe my stage win here will help me be recognised as well,” he added.

All pictures copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.