In a rehearsal for the world championships in Tuscany later this month, Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Leopard outgunned Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Tony Martin to win the Stage 11 individual time trial at Tarazona this afternoon. It was also a significant day in the General Classification, with Astana's Vincenzo Nibali once again taking the race lead from RadioShack-Leopard's Chris Horner, who drops to fourth overall.
Saxo-Tinkoff's Nicolas Roche lies second overall, 33 seconds down on Nibali, with 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who lost time to an early puncture today now third, 46 seconds off the lead following the 36km stage that featured a Category 3 climb on the first half of the parcours and a descent back to Tarazona in the second part.
That's the same time gap from Nibali as Horner has, but Valverde edges ahead of the American on countback. There's then a gap of nearly 2 minutes to the fifth placed rider, Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez.
Nibali, who had led the race for a solitary day after Stage 2 and then again for four days after Stage 4, was reported to have considered abandoning the race this morning after waking up with a face swollen due to a sting from a wasp during yesterday's rest day.
With his Astana team being signed up to the Mouvement Pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), which forbids the use of cortisone by riders of its member teams, the Sicilian was unable to benefit from what would otherwise have been a standard remedy to ease his symptoms, and one for which in normal circumstances he would have been entitled to a therapeutic use exemption on medical grounds.
Nevertheless, the 28-year-old, winner of the 2010 Vuelta and this year's Giro d'Italia, clocked the fourth fastest time of the day, 1 minute 25 seconds down on Canacellara.
Vincenzo Nibali back in red for 3rd time (© Unipublic/Graham Watson)
Following the stage, Nibali said: "It was a very hard one with a lot of wind. It was difficult to maintain a rhythm but I’ve done an excellent race. I’m happy. I couldn’t do any better. I can’t ride a gear of 58 or 56 like Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara. I’ve done my best with my 55x11.
Regarding his facial wound, he insisted that withdrawing from the race had not in fact been considered.
"I got stung by a wasp. It’s been a difficult time for me but my condition has improved. I haven’t thought of pulling out of the Vuelta because I thought I could do well. This morning the volume of my eye had decreased but it was still painful. It went better and better."
On the prospect of repeating his 2010 overall win he said: "Yes, I’ll see day after day how I am. There are important climbs coming up.
"My main rivals are the same after the time trial: Rodriguez, Valverde, and also Horner, but mostly Rodriguez and Valverde even if Rodriguez is the one who has paid the most today while Valverde has had a great ride despite a mechanical."
Martin, winner of the rainbow jersey in the time trial in the Netherlands 12 months ago and in Denmark a year earlier, had been the strong favourite to win today.
Tony Martin on Vuelta Stage 11 ( © Unipublic/Graham Watson)
The performance this afternoon from four-time world champion Cancellara suggests that there could be a battle royale at this year's world championships, also being targeted by Sir Bradley Wiggins, who beat Martin to Olympic gold in London last year.
Cancellara's time of 51 minutes dead bettered by 31 seconds the one that had been set earlier by Martin.
Following his stage win, Cancellara said: "I’m happy that is over. It was a very hard parcours that was not perfect for a specialist, but I said to myself that I needed to do my race at my own pace and just find the right rhythm for myself.
“The uphill section was very rough especially with the wind. That caused a lot of disruption of my rhythm, plus yesterday was the rest day so you never know how your body will respond on the day after and I’ve put in a lot of work in the first ten days of the Vuelta working for Chris Horner.
“I know that I gave the maximum today. This was a good test for myself that had nothing to do with my competitors and more about seeing how I’m feeling. It was both uphill and then downhill and required a good workout. I’m happy with my performance. I think I got the best out of myself today.”
Perhaps the most surprising performance of the day, however, came from AG2R-La Mondiale's Italian climber, Domenico Pozzovivo, who posted the third fastest time, finishing 1 minute 24 seconds down on Cancellara and 1 second ahead of Martin.
Horner, winner of Monday's Stage 10, his second of the race, had begun the day with an advantage of 43 seconds over Nibali at the top of the overall standings.
The 41-year-old RadioShack-Leopard rider was 20th fastest today, ceding 2 minutes 54 seconds to Cancellara but, more importantly 1 minute 25 seconds to the man who is this evening in the red jersey for the third time in this 68th edition of the Vuelta, Nibali.
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.