After a very quiet beginning to his season, Andreas Klöden (Astana) has taken victory in the stage three time trial and with it the overall lead as the race heads towards the mountains tomorrow. Starting the day in eighth place, ten seconds behind overnight leader Michael Albasini (Liquigas), the German proved fastest of all the favourites to take a narrow six second lead over defending champion Thomas Dekker (Rabobank).
On a predominantly flat course, but featuring a tough climb with sections of 17%, the former German champion eclipsed the time set more than half an hour earlier by Dutch time trial specialist Stef Clement (Bouygues Telecom). Dekker managed to beat his countryman but was just unable to match Klöden and lost his overnight one-second lead over the Astana rider – he now trails him by five.
Clement held on to his third place, just one second ahead of Tony Martin (High Road), whose time had stood on top of the leader board for well over an hour.
Approaching the finish on the twisting streets of Sion with a comfortably the fastest time so far, Klöden so very nearly lost everything with 200 metres to go as he overcooked it on a corner. "I went so fast that when I used my brakes, my back wheel locked. Fortunately I was able to keep myself on the bike by hitting the publicity boarding with my shoulders," Klöden described afterwards. "I was in a very big gear and so it was difficult to get going again afterwards." Despite this, he finished twenty seconds clear of Clement in a time that was just about good enough to hold off the challenge from Dekker. He led the Dutchman by 17 seconds at the top of the climb with just seven kilometres remaining; those final kilometre wobbles cut that to just six.
"It was quite challenging with the head wind," Klöden continued, "but I remained focused on having a strong ride up the climb and took the jersey." A jersey that the Astana team will be extra motivated to hang on to, excluded, as they are, from so many of the year's big races. "I know that tomorrow will be tough with four climbs," said the former German champion, "but I'm confident in the team's ability to control the race. With four riders in the top 11, it shows that we are in good shape and motivated to win here."
Dekker, the defending champion, was disappointed to have been beaten so narrowly, but took consolation in one fact. "The only positive thing is now Astana must control the race," he said. In tomorrow's decisive stage, the riders will face three climbs instead of the orginally planned four category one mountains due to a course diversion caused by landslides. Dekker hopes the Rabobank team can work together to put Klöden on the ropes. "Perhaps Denis [Menchov] and I can work together to isolate him," he hinted. The 2007 Vuelta a Espana winner now lies in seventh overall, forty five seconds behind Klöden and forty behind Dekker.
Other overall favourites remain poised to take advantage of any opportunities to escape the predicted Astana/Rababank battle; the biggest of these being 2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro Sio. He lost 46 seconds to Klöden today, but could take that back if the German falters. The main threats to Klöden's jersey though undoubtedly come from the Rabobank duo, but with three men in his own team – with Vladimir Gusev, Maxim Iglinsky and Steve Morabito – less than a minute behind him, Klöden should have all the support he needs.
How it unfolded
The time trial took place on a blistering hot day in the Southern Swiss town of Sion. Conditions were the same as those experienced by the women in the GP Suisse – Souvenir Magali Pache that had taken place an hour earlier. Temperatures were very warm and only a light wind was present to trouble riders in the early parts of the course.
Starting as the ninth rider due to his position on the overnight classification, time trial specialist Tony Martin (High Road) was the first to lay down a serious time, finishing in 25:53.66.
Martin's time was to last for almost an hour and a half until it was finally beaten by World championship bronze medallist Stef Clement – who started 97th – and even then the young Dutchman was only able to shave fractionally over a second off the German's time.
Starting three places behind Clement, Gustav Larsson (CSC) looked like he might better the Dutchman for a while, but in the end his time of 25:57.21 was only good enough for a provisional third place behind Martin.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was the first of the big favourites expected to do well, but he was unable to match his team-mate's time and he went into provisional fourth, behind Larsson.
Marco Pinotti (High Road) went a few seconds faster than Menchov, but Clement, Martin and Larsson seemed untouchable.
Vladimir Gusev (Astana) managed to beat Menchov and Pinotti, but it wasn't until his team-mate Andreas Klöden approached the finish that the lead looked like it would change hands. Klöden nearly came to grief when he overcooked a turn in the narrow, twisty final kilometre, but was able to use the advertising boards on the outside of one corner to keep himself upright. The incident undoubtedly cost him a few seconds, but he managed to cross the line twenty seconds faster than Clement.
2006 Tour de France winner Oscar Pereiro Sio finished 46 seconds back, seven slower than Menchov, so it seemed that the only man capable of overhauling Klöden would be last year's Romandie winner Thomas Dekker (Rabobank).
Dekker began the stage well down on the German leader, and was 17 seconds behind at one point, but rallied in the final half. Despite burying himself in the closing stages, Dekker was unable to beat the German's time, but limited his losses by finishing six seconds back.
Roman Kreizinger (Liquigas) kept his GC hopes alive by finishing in sixth, 37 seconds back. The GC hopes of the overnight top three: Markus Zberg (Gerolsteiner), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana) and Michael Albasini (Liquigas) all but disappeared though. Iglinsky wobbled theatrically around the final bend – overcooking it somewhat as Klöden had done – but the three of them all finished over a minute down and drifted out of contention.