One day after he managed to become Ireland’s first leader of the Vuelta since Sean Kelly in 1988, a short but ultra steep climb in the mountains of northern Andalusia saw Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) squeezed out of the top spot by the bare minimum of one second.
Fourth at the finish, Roche managed to limit the gap on Dani Moreno to just eight seconds as the road reared upwards like the wall of a house. But combined with the time bonuses on offer to the first three riders across the line and the time gap, it was enough to lose the lead.
It was clearly a blow, but the 29-year-old took it calmly and expressed determination to keep fighting for a top placing. It is also true that come what may his stage two win and his spell in the leader’s jersey are not going to disappear, and if Roche wanted a consolation prize of some sorts, although he lost both the overall lead and the ‘combined’ classification top spot on Sunday, he remained in control of the King of the Mountains jersey.
“I’m half sad, half okay with what happened,” Roche said afterwards. “Yesterday [Saturday] was great, but every day is a different one. It was a tough little climb.
“I can be pleased because I did well on it, I got fourth, so I know my legs are in good shape. Tomorrow I hope to be able to get that second back, or at least not to lose more time."
Whilst for Roche personally the Vuelta is already his most successful Grand Tour to date by a long chalk, it is a sign of his growing confidence that he is beginning to look longer term. On Saturday, he was determined to enjoy the day’s lead come what may, 24 hours later he was, he said, “thinking about the time trial, which I hope will be good for me.”
Whilst Roman Kreuziger lost more time and is now 23 minutes back and is out of the overall battle, Roche was more cautious when asked if he is now the lone leader of Saxo-Tinkoff, given Rafa Majka had also lost 58 seconds on Sunday’s stage and has slid to twelfth overall.
“I hope Rafa is better tomorrow and he can get recover. The Vuelta is very long and things can change round very fast, just like they did last year in the Vuelta when it all turned upside down” - with teammate Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) being the man responsible for that - “and we shouldn't draw too many conclusions yet.” But that Roche is, together with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Horner (RadioShack), the rider most likely to challenge the Spanish on their home soil looks like more and more certain - despite Sunday’s defeat.