Kennaugh gains first Grand Tour lead of career in Vuelta a Espana

Pete Kennaugh’s first ever spell in the Vuelta a Espana’s lead might have been unexpected and he himself said he’d “never seen himself in a Grand Tour leader’s jersey in the near future.” But the Briton is more than satisfied with the way the Vuelta’s opening team time trial has worked out.

For Kennaugh (Team Sky), leading the Vuelta comes after he has fought back from a difficult first half to the season, winning the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race and a stage of the Herald Sun Tour, but crashing out in the Tour of California and breaking his collarbone. Then having missed out on the Olympics, he needed to refocus his objectives on the later part of the year.

Kennaugh rose to the occasion and showed he was on the up at the Vuelta a Burgos in August, finishing fifth overall and taking sixth on the hardest stage finish to Lagunas de Neila. Then at the Vuelta, he’s moved up another big level again, although as he said, crossing the line first and winning the Vuelta’s opening team time trial was not something he had imagined before Saturday evening.

“it was definitely not planned, I’d have been happy if we’d finished within touching distance of first place,” Kennaugh said. “Everyone’s come from different objectives, Rio or me coming back from injury, so I’m over the moon to be in the jersey, but it was definitely not planned."

“For me, it was not the best April, because I always plan to do well in the Ardennes and for some reason, I don’t know whatever, I can’t find my best form, but then I come back up in May and June.”

However, his broken collarbone in the US’s top stage race curtailed that return to top condition. “So I was obviously a bit gutted for that to happen, but it’s a funny old sport, swings and roundabouts and peaks and troughs and all that. So obviously I’ve trained really really hard, done everything for the bike and all that for the last two months, at Burgos I knew was good, I’ve just been putting a bit more pressure on myself. Usually I try to take the pressure off, but I wanted to come into this race a bit more confident and take it on a bit.”

As for the Vuelta team time trial win, the former national road champion and Olympic team pursuit gold medallist said he thought the key to Sky’s success was “starting off hard. Sometimes guys in the team are a bit cautious and always want to start a bit easier, but at the end of the day, team time trials are not supposed to be easy. You can’t just give away 10 seconds in the first five kilometres because you’ll never get it back. You’ve got to go into it and not be scared to fail and not be scared to do it yourself, and that’s exactly what we did. My first turn, I was pretty much full gas straightaway and I was already in the red.”

“I think that’s the key to it, maybe in the past we’ve been a bit too controlled in the race, and you can’t afford to do that, even over [a time trial distance of] 30 kilometres.”

As for how he felt after such a hard effort, Kennaugh said bluntly, “I’m wrecked. I still haven’t eaten anything. It’s crazy, you know, yesterday I was just another rider in the Vuelta and now I’m thrown into the red jersey and getting asked all these questions. It’s pretty surreal at the minute, but I can’t wait to start tomorrow as the leader of the race.”

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As for the longer term plan, he was equally direct, saying “it’s back to the day job. It’ll be about keeping Froomey out of trouble, staying close to the front, doing what we do.” Whether or not he will try to hang on to the lead, he said, “I have no idea, but we’re all here for Froome.”

“We talked about it yesterday and it’s 100 percent for him. He was the only guy we were going to wait for today. You could even see today though, that in the first halff, he was just as good as anyone but I think” - as Froome himself confirmed - “maybe holding back a bit. “

“Then in the second half in the last 15 kilometres he really opened up, I think you might not see the best of him in the first week, but for sure in the second and third week, particularly that time trial [on stage 19], we’ll see Froome right there amongst it. He’s such a phenomenal rider, you can’t just start putting your eggs in different baskets, it’s just a case of ‘go for him’.”

One of just a handful of British riders to have led in the Vuelta - including Froome himself in 2011 - Kennaugh said, “even if there was 20 Brits who’d had the jersey, I’d never seen myself in leader’s jersey at GT any time in the near future, it feels amazing, it’s a surprise,I think it’ll only sink in when I’m in the start line on red jersey. But wow, what a way to start my last part of the season, it’s great.”

As for the bigger picture for the Vuelta GC battle, with Alberto Contador already trailing Froome by nearly a minute, Kennaugh reflected, “I think Froome will be super happy with this, and also the team. For the fans and spectators it’s really interesting too because any chance he [Contador] gets he has to try and make time back now. It’ll make it tough out there and maybe a bit more of a spectacle. But for us, to have time on such a strong rider, it’s an incredible start to the race.”And for Kennaugh, too, the Vuelta could hardly have begun in a better way.

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