Vuelta Stage 1: Astana win team time trial and put Janez Brajkovič into race lead
Tough team time trial today, RadioShack-Leopard go second fastest, Omega Pharma-Quick Step third
Janez Brajkovič of Astana is the first leader of the 68th edition of the Vuelta a Espana, the Slovenian rider leading team mate and Giro d'Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali - winner of the Vuelta in 2010 - across the line at the end of today's 27.5km team time trial from Vilanova de Arousa to Sanxenxo on the Galician coast.
The Kazakh team was the last out on what proved to be a tougher than expected course this afternoon, bettering by 10 seconds the previous best time, set by RadioShack-Leopard. Omega Pharma-Quick Step spent much of the day in the virtual stage lead, but posted the third fastest time.
It's the fourth year in a row that the Spanish Grand Tour has begun with a team time trial, although the towns that hosted the start and finish today are less well known than Seville, Benidorm or Pamplona, the cities which have hosted the initial stages of the past three editions.
UCI Professional Continental outfit NetApp-Endura, making their Grand Tour debut, were the first team to roll down a rather singular start ramp, made from glass and sitting atop a floating pontoon in the harbour at Vilanova de Arousa.
They were the early pacesetters and would set the seventh quickest time of the day, putting some more heralded - and experienced - names such as BMC Racing and Orica-GreenEdge into the shade.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who in Florence will next month defend the team time trial world title that they won in the Netherlands last year, surpassed that time and until late on it seemed as if their first man across the line, the individual world champion in the discipline, Tony Martin, might be putting on the red jersey of race leader this evening.
RadioShack-Leopard went quicker, however, raising the prospect that it might be Fabian Cancellara, who led the Vuelta for four days in 2009 after winning the opening individual time trial in the Dutch town of Assen, who might be the man at the top of the General Classification.
But the last team out, Astana, who in common with the other quicker teams managed to hold their shape for longer, would prevail and give Nibali's hopes of winning the race for the second time a boost.
Indeed, several of the slower outfits would ride the final kilometres with just five of the nine riders together, something that was bound to translate into precious seconds being lost, with the clock stopping when the fifth man crossed the line.
With some big mountain stages to come particularly towards the end of the race, and unlike the Tour de France, time bonuses of up to 20 seconds on offer for the first three riders across the line on road stages, there’s a long way to go in the 2013 Vuelta.
Nevertheless, some riders will be ruing the time they lost today, with overall hopefuls such as Carlos Betancur of AG2R and Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp - whose team reportedly crashed during today's stage - both losing more than a minute to Nibali.
After the stage, Brajkovič revealed that his team's recconaissance of the course earlier on in the day had taken place "in pretty special conditions because the course was not closed to the traffic.
"But we understood that it was a good course for us. We had to remain united to hope for a great result. I was convinced we’d do well but I didn’t think we’d win. Some teams looked superior to ours. It’s a big surprise to have won and to wear the red jersey."
Reminded that it had been in the same region, Galicia, where he had taken the race lead in the 2006 Vuelta for a brief time, he said: "This is a coincidence but I’m very happy to hear that.
"All I can say is that I’ve suffered a lot to get this result. It’s been painful during the whole stage because we were riding very fast. But the pain was necessary for winning."
The Slovenian was unequivocal about his team's overriding goal in this year's race, however: "I’m here for the team and we have an undisputed leader, Vincenzo Nibali, who is also the number 1 favorite for the overall victory.
"I’ll work for him. We’ll see on Sunday if I’m still the race leader but that’s not the most important. It’s all for Vincenzo."
Whle the 29-year-old finds himself in the jersey of race leader of one of the three biggest stage races in the sport this evening, he confesses that he is uncetain what the future holds: "I don’t know because I’m left with no contract for next year. Astana won’t keep me," he said.
Team mate Nibali said: "We’ve done a great time trial. We’ve remained united and been strong from start to finish. Jani has had a lot of bad luck in the recent past, so it was fair to let him take the red jersey.
"My condition is very good but the Vuelta is hard and long. There’ll be some crucial stages. We’ll have to see day by day.”
Meanwhile, the two strongest individual time triallists on display today, Cancellara and Martin, who between them have won six of the last seven World Time Trial Championships, reflected on an afternoon in which each was briefly virtual race leader.
RadioShack-Leopard's Cancellara said: “I’ve done my job [according to team mate Chris Horner, the Swiss roder put in three more turns than any of their colleagues].
"I’ve given everything bearing in mind that our leaders, Chris and Robert [Kiserlovski] stayed up there. I would have been happy to take the red jersey but I’m very satisfied by the performance of my team.”
Martin of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who will help defend that team world title in Florence next month as well as his own individual title in the colours of Germany, added: “We thought we put a winning time together. It was a perfect course for us.
"We had a few problems finding the good order at the very beginning but the five riders designated for finishing it off stayed together and rode very strongly.”: