Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) lost minimal time on the hardest summit finish of the Vuelta a Espana on Monday and in the process took what is arguably one of the most important steps he needs towards a possible overall victory.
Dumoulin's ability to cling on in the main group only failed him when there was barely a kilometre to go, and although the Dutchman lost 28 seconds on the final, ultra-steep slopes of the Ermita del Alba, he is now only 1:51 down on new race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) in fourth place overall. As a standout time triallist, the 38.7 kilometre race against the clock in Burgos on Wednesday represents a huge chance for the Dutchman to turn the tables after no fewer than nine summit finishes.
"I saved the day, I was much better than expected," Dumoulin said afterwards, "I was much better than expected. I didn't feel so good on the first category climb [of La Cobertoria], and the race speed was very fast. But I was never really in trouble.
"I'll give it a go in the time trial and in the last week, so there's everything to play for. It will be very difficult, and there are still some hard stages around Madrid after that. But it's looking good now."
After losing 51 seconds to Joaquim Rodriguez on the stage 15 summit finish in Sotres, Dumoulin performed much better on the far steeper Ermita del Alba climb.
"I think yesterday [stage 15] I made a mistake, I could have hung on a little longer but I went too quickly to my own pace," Dumoulin explained. "Today I thought, 'if I blow up, I blow up', but I didn't."
To argue that the Dutchman will now automatically win the Vuelta is taking too much for granted. As Rodriguez has pointed out, Grand Tour time trials like the one in Burgos on stage 17 are very different animals compared time trials in the first or even the second week of a three-week race, with the differences between specialists and non-specialists theoretically much lower. And Dumoulin has been punching above his weight for so long in the Vuelta that it may yet prove too hard for him to gain the significant amounts of time on the climbers that he is widely predicted to do.
However, there's no denying the chances of Dumoulin taking his country's first Vuelta win since Joop Zoetemelk in 1979 are considerably higher than three days ago - and whatever the final result, the Dutchman's Vuelta 2015 can be considered a Grand Tour breakthrough of major proportions.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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