...But Ruben Plaza takes it in record time
Roberto Heras (Liberty-Würth) showed he is in outstanding condition as he finished second in today's individual time trial with a time of 41'31.939 at the stage 20 of the Vuelta a España. Ruben Plaza (Comunidad Valenciana) performed just a little bit better, winning the stage in 41'31.362. Heras showed he is without doubt the best rider of the Vuelta a España, and he is almost home for an unprecedented fourth Vuelta victory.
It was a superb, fast time trial, and the fastest of the history of the Vuelta, as most of the riders received the help of a strong tailwind for much of the course. The stage average was a phenomenal 56.218 km/h, faster in fact than any long individual time trial in any Grand Tour.
Winner Ruben Plaza said at the press conference that the race against the clock was very close. "Winning always feels good and especially in a such an important time trial like this one in the Vuelta a España," he commented. "I was watching the finale on the TV and when Roberto [Heras] crossed I didn't know if I won or not. It was a heart-stopping finale."
"I expected to be there in the top, and in the end the best on the general classification ended at the top," said Roberto Heras to Cyclingnews seconds after finishing his amazing TT. He added he felt very good, but didn't want to talk about his fourth win. Instead he said, "The truth is that I'm very proud of my team."
Carlos Sastre (CSC) was third today and kept his third on the overall classification. He could hardly breath when we spoke to him: "I think it was a very hard time trial, everyone went at his best. For me it was important to maintain this position [3rd on GC]. I rode at my best; I couldn't go faster...You should be satisfied when you do your best and you cannot achieve more."
On the other hand, Francisco Mancebo was fifth today, "I gave it all in this Vuelta, so I have no regrets," said the Illes Balears to Cyclingnews at the finish. "If you give all, and you do what you've got to do, in the end people recognize it."
How it unfolded
The penultimate stage finished in Alcala de Henares, a beautiful small city some kilometres northeast of Madrid. In this town in 1547, Miguel de Cervantes was born. Cervantes's greatest book was El Quijote de la Mancha, which is the most famous book written in Spanish in history, like Hamlet is to English. El Quijote was published for the first time in 1605. The Vuelta organization wanted to honour Cervantes' memory and celebrates the 400th anniversary of this prestigious publication in the history of literature.
Early in the day, the race authorities took 13 blood controls from the best placed riders on GC from the following nine outfits: Quick Step, Liberty, Discovery Channel, T-Mobile, Comunidad Valenciana, Euskaltel, Davitamon, Rabobank and CSC. All of them were declared fit to continue the race. At 14:02 local time, the first to start in Guadalajara from the 127 riders was Yohann Gene (Bouygues Telecom), who was the last on the overall classification. But the first big reference on the day was Sweden's Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi) who rode the 38.9 kilometres in 43'33. Germany's Uwe Peschel (Gerolsteiner) did a good time trial, but not good enough to be faster than Bäckstedt, as he finished in 43'35.
Rik Verbrugghe (Quick Step), who was second in the first time trial in Granada, also showed he performs well in long time trials and he beat Bäckstedt's time by 17 seconds (43'17). All the riders were travelling very fast because the wind conditions were very favourable, with a tailwind that increased especially in the last part of the route. The times were improving minute after minute. Angel Vicioso (Liberty) clocked 43'06, and soon after Christian Vandevelde (CSC) performed better with 42'38.
The wind was essential for those times. The best on the GC were arriving and the best times lasted just a few minutes. Oscar Pereiro (Phonak) came home in 42'04, Stijn Devolder (Discovery Channel) in 42'01 and Victor Hugo Peña bettered all the riders in 41'54. The speed average was amazing: more than 55 km/h.
Ruben Plaza (Comunidad Valenciana) began at 16:15 and his time proved to be the best of the afternoon. At the first intermediate point (km 15.8), he was fifth, but he improved a lot at the second intermediate check (km 26) and he was third. His last sector was incredible, and he finished first, destroying Peña's performance with 41'31.
At 16:28, the leader Roberto Heras started. He needed a decent time to make sure he would wear the golden jersey on the last day. He didn't do a decent performance, but a remarkable one, finishing second by 57 hundredths of a second. The winner of the first two time trials, Denis Menchov, was a little off the pace today and finished fourth, but only 6 seconds slower than Plaza.
Stage 21 - September 18: Madrid-Madrid, 136.5 km
This will be the last day of the Vuelta. This will be a chance for many riders like Italy's Alessandro Petacchi to see Madrid's roads in preparation for the World's race on September 25. The stage has three intermediate sprints: Morata de Tajuña (km 32.8), Fuenlabrada (km 69.7) and Madrid (km 101.7). Roberto Heras will certainly enjoy the day wearing the golden jersey and obtaining his record fourth overall win in the Vuelta.