Exactly a week after losing the overall lead of the Vuelta a Espana to Fabio Aru (Astana) in the mountains of Andorra, a stunning time trial performance in Burgos has netted Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) the top spot on general classification once again.
However, Dumoulin's stage win over Polish national time trial champion Maciej Bodnar (Tinkoff-Saxo) by 64 seconds and a surprisingly strong Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in third did not see the Dutchman distance Aru as much as he would have liked. The Italian rode the time trial of his life to finish in 10th place on the stage, maintain his second place overall and remains at a scant three seconds on the general classification.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), ousted from his fleeting grip on the red jersey and who sank to third overall, had predicted before Burgos that "whoever leads the race after the time trial is almost certain to win."
Given how tight the general classification struggle is still proving to be between Dumoulin and Aru, with Rodriguez, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and the Movistar duo of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana all there or thereabouts in the overall, holding the lead all the way to Madrid may not be as straightforward as Dumoulin would have liked.
Whatever the opposition can achieve between here and Sunday cannot take away from the merits of Dumoulin's time trial ride. He did not seem to let the pressure of hugely raised expectations affect his performance in one of the most important time trials of his career to date. Rather, a faultless race agains the clock without incidents or punctures saw the Dutch star take the fastest provisional check point after 13 kilometres by 11 seconds on Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida). From then on as Dumoulin continued to blast around the rolling course, the only question was how much time he would finally take on the opposition.
Describing the time trial, Dumoulin said, "I was mentally in a good place, this morning I did a second recon of the the course and I asked my sports director to note down every little detail I needed to know to ensure I produced the best performance. I was very focussed and had really good legs. That's what made the difference today."
Looking into the future to two tough mountain stages and a tricky trek through the sierras of Avila yet to come and such a narrow advantage on Aru, Dumoulin was more than realistic about his chances. "I'm really happy, I did a very good time trial, but the race is definitely not over."
"Three seconds time difference is virtually nothing," he said, "It's going to be a real spectacle for the spectators but one hell of a close fight. There will be difficult days ahead and he's definitely going to try to get me out of this jersey."
"Saturday's stage is definitely the hardest," Dumoulin said of the stage with four first category climbs that finishes on a descent. He said does not know any of the upcoming categorised climbs, starting with the first category ascent of La Quesera and the unexpectedly steep approach roads that precede the climb itself on Thursday's lengthy stage.
Having achieved so much, Dumoulin is not willing simply to let the jersey go just like that. He argued he has always ridden well in the third week of Grand Tours, albeit not when fighting for an overall lead. Furthermore, the inevitable jostling for a podium place behind the leader that always develops in the final week could play out in his benefit.
"I imagine [Rafal] Majka is going to attack to go on the podium, and Purito [Rodriguez, now third overall] is not going to be happy with that. But first I have to keep an eye on Aru."
Either way and before he starts thinking too much about the Italian rider, Dumoulin was understandably satisfied with what he has achieved already, saying the Giant-Alpecin team's initial idea is "to celebrate the stage win and the lead. Then we'll see what happens." And regardless of how Aru and the rest react, as Dumoulin put it, "Now I have a real chance of winning."
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