Vincenzo Nibali's return to the top spot of the Vuelta a España at the conclusion of stage four caught the 28-year-old Italian completely off guard. Team buses had been parked four kilometres away from the finish because of restrictions on space at the Fisterra lighthouse finish, and Nibali was actually on his bike, en route for a shower and change of clothes, when the news came through: overnight leader Chris Horner was caught on the wrong side of a split in the peloton, transferring the red jersey to Nibali's back by three seconds.
Lacking a race radio or phone on him, though, there was no way of making contact with the 2013 Giro winner so a member of team management was dispatched to track him down and bring him up to the finish via a team car.
"I'm surprised, I had no idea I was the leader," Nibali said afterwards. Asked whether he actually wanted to shoulder the responsibility of leading, he made it clear that it was not his aim so early in the game, with 17 stages still to come.
"I wanted to be calm, like I said on other days," Nibali said. "I could see that Horner's team wanted to keep the jersey, they had worked really hard to defend it. I appreciated how much they wanted it.
"I wasn't looking for the lead, just to stay in the main group right up until the end." With a 16th place result on the day he said he was pleased "because there were no big gaps at the finish and we had kept the situation under control."
"These four stages have been very tense, very hard racing and we've had [Alejandro] Valverde [Movistar] and [Joaquim] Rodriguez [Katusha] going for it in the finishes, using all their power in the uphill sprints." The two Spaniards, he said, were his clearest rivals for the moment.
Asked if he planned to defend the jersey on the three upcoming stages, two of which may end in bunch sprints, prior to the next big showdown, on Saturday's climb to Estepona, Nibali was noncommittal.
"The Vuelta is very long and we will see if we work to defend it, we have to take things day by day."
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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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