Astana's Levi Leipheimer has shown superb form in the first individual time trial of this year's Vuelta, winning the 52.4 kilometre Ciudad Real time trial and snatching the gold leader's jersey. It's the first time he has led a Grand Tour in his career, and shows that he is in strong form despite missing the Tour de France.
The Olympic bronze medallist started slowly but accelerated throughout the race against the clock, overhauling long-time leader Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) by 33 seconds and fending off French time trial champion Sylvain Chavanel, who was twelve seconds slower. In fact, Leipheimer's second half was impressive; at the 28 kilometre checkpoint, he was 42 seconds behind Quinziato and 18 seconds behind Mikhail Ignatiev (Tinkoff Credit Systems). However, by the finish, he was 33 seconds up on the Italian. Ignatiev had cracked in the meantime, dropping to a final position of 16th.
Leipheimer's fast finish proved crucial as he ended the day just two seconds ahead of Chavanel (Cofidis) in the general classification. Race leader Daniele Bennati was 50th in the time trial and dropped away from the top of the GC.
"I've been feeling very strong for the last couple of weeks, since the Olympics of course," Leipheimer said afterwards. "We did a race in Madrid, which I won. The first days of the Vuelta I felt really good and I had a lot of confidence going into today. However, it was very difficult. The first 20 kilometers had a headwind, but I conserved enough energy, allowing me to go faster in the end. This is another big highlight for me and this team. It's always an honour to win a stage in a Grand Tour, plus wear the leader's jersey."
Alejandro Valverde had a solid time trial, placing fifth, and remained third overall. He ended the day 30 seconds behind Leipheimer, and showed that he has greatly improved in the discipline
"The time I just achieved is a great satisfaction for me," said Valverde afterwards. "On an almost completely-flat 42 kilometre time trial, a parcours that is not particularly favourable to me, I lost almost no time compared with the specialists.
"I started very fast in the first section to try to gain some time there. In the last section, where there was a headwind, it was more difficult for me, but I think this is one of the best time trials I ever raced."
It also gives him confidence for the remainder of the race. "I will keep on seeing what happens every day, but it is a fact that the result of today gives me an extra motivation for the first mountains."
Like Valverde, two other GC contenders more suited to the mountains also performed well. Alberto Contador was fourth in the test , 49 seconds off the winning pace, and is now fifth overall. Sastre, the 2008 Tour de France champion, was 15th, 1'30" back, and is seventh in the general classification. He will start tomorrow's stage 1'27" behind the new race leader, who was third overall in the 2001 Vuelta.
"I rode a regular time trial," said Contador afterwards. "I could manage my output as I had the split times of Levi. In the end I lost some time, but I am happy with my position in the GC and more importantly, am feeling well."
He received strong support from his team-mate while winning the 2007 Tour de France and this year's Giro d'Italia, and is therefore happy to see the American have the chance to win the time trial and lead the race.
"Levi deserved this victory and I congratulate him. This only strengthens the options for Team Astana, because it is always better to have two candidates than one."
As for Sastre, he was known for many years as a rider who was not particularly strong in time trials. However he showed in the final TT of this year's Tour that he has improved, and he pulled out a respectable ride today. The CSC rider finished 1'30" back in 15th place, and said that his confidence was boosted as a result
"The feeling after the time trial is a positive one," he said. "It was a day that I had to respect, especially in order to know a bit more than my physical condition. I knew that it was not bad, but it was an important test anyway. Although the first part of my time trial was not the best, I found the rhythm of my pedals in the second half and avoided losing time, especially with respect to my [GC] rivals."
Sastre comes away with a better sense that he can do something in this race. "Now I look at the future with a bit more optimism that I did in recent days," he stated. "It has not been an easy start to this Tour of Spain, but I think from now things will change. Seeing the time trial result of my colleagues is something that motivates me, and has given us the serenity that we need within the team."
His team-mate Jurgen Van Goolen finished sixth on the stage, one place ahead of Michael Blaudzun. This strength in depth was something that made an impression on team director Scott Sunderland.
"We're very pleased with the entire team's effort today," he said. "Carlos lost relatively little time compared to the other favorites and has definitely underlined the fact that he means business here. The fact that Jurgen Van Goolen and Michael Blaudzun also delivered two super times just proves how motivated our guys are and this will definitely make a big difference for Carlos."
Other riders would not have been so happy with the day's result. Stefan Schumacher and Andreas Klöden are both known as strong time trial riders but were only eleventh and twelfth on the stage, both conceding over a minute 20 seconds to Leipheimer.
Tom Boonen's 13th was a solid result for the sprinter, but GC riders Robert Gesink (27th), Igor Anton (38th), Yaroslav Popovych (46th) and Damiano Cunego (80th) were between 2'08" and 3'52" back. If they are to challenge for a high overall placing, they really need to ride strongly in the mountains. The first big peaks come on Saturday's 233 kilometre stage to Andorra.
Before then, the riders will tomorrow tackle a 150.1 kilometre leg from Ciudad Real to Toledo. Leipheimer will savour the moment, given that he is finally leading a Grand Tour some seven years after shocking the cycling world with a third place finish in the Vuelta. However he's still willing to regard Contador as the most likely leader of the team.
"In this Vuelta we have many mountains to come," he said. "Personally, I believe Alberto is the best climber in the world. He has something that nobody else has; he can accelerate in the mountains, he can follow the best riders and I think Alberto will continue to get better as the Vuelta continues.
"He hasn't raced much since the Giro, but he is the leader of the team. He has won the Tour and the Giro and we are now all here to help him win the Vuelta. For me, I won a stage, I wear the leader's jersey ... It's very nice for me, but I think Alberto is the strongest rider on this team."