The opening team time trial of the Vuelta a España is usually about balancing the real risk of crashing with the potential reward of snatching a handful of seconds from potential rivals, but for some teams in Marbella on Saturday evening, it simply a question of protecting assets.
The 7.4-kilometre test from Puerto Banús was neutralised in the wake of complaints about the safety of a course that included sections covered in sand, meaning that while a red jersey was on offer for the quickest team, the race would have no impact on the final general classification.
You can tell a lot about a team’s aspirations in such circumstances. While BMC, Tinkoff-Saxo and Orica-GreenEdge still battled it out for the stage honours, there was little surprise when Astana, Movistar and Sky all opted to ease off the throttle to varying degrees.
Like when Miguel Indurain opted for a regular road bike on the rain-soaked (though not neutralised) prologue of the 1995 Tour de France in Saint-Brieuc, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Chris Froome each rolled down the start ramp on the Costa del Sol with the simple aim of getting from point A to point B without incident, timekeepers be damned.
Movistar, winners of the corresponding stage in Jerez a year ago, came home 24 seconds down in 9th place. Astana crossed the line a further 6 seconds back in 13th, while Sky edged around the course all of 1:11 down in 20th place on the stage.
"We didn’t take any kind of risk because it was quite dangerous and there were a lot of vibrations from the different surfaces," Nibali told Cyclingnews as he soft-pedalled away from the finish area. "Let’s say that it wasn’t the best thing in the world tackling a parcours like that on a time trial bike in a prologue."
In the final reckoning, Nibali and his teammates probably risked more picking their way through the groups of holiday-makers straying into their path on the Paseo Maritimo after the stage than they had during the team time trial itself.
That should not detract attention, however, from the fact that the commissaires had not come to approve the course until just a week before the race, meaning that the debate over how best to resolve the issue was shoehorned into the pre-race meeting of directeurs sportifs on Friday morning.
"It was very strange to ride a stage like that, but it’s not the fault of us riders. We tried to play our part," Nibali said. "I think that the UCI should have a delegate who is sent to look at courses in advance and establish whether they’re suitable or not, and whether these are the kinds of events that should be held or not. And in this particular case, it was a walkway on the seafront for the people, not a road…"
The attitude at Team Sky to Saturday’s time trial was markedly similar to that of Astana. Nicolas Roche could make light of the situation when it was put to him that Sky had looked not to take any risks – "Do you really need to ask me that?" he said as he rolled off – while in a statement on the team website later, Geraint Thomas summed their feelings.
"When the organisers said there weren't going to be any times taken for the GC, we decided to take it easy and stay upright," Thomas said. "I rode most of the race on my sidebars because it was so bumpy, and because there was a lot of gravel and sand on the corners. If everyone had have gone flat out, it might have been quite dangerous."
The impressions given by a first day time trial can often be misleading – see this year’s Tour de France opener in Utrecht for instance – but Nibali said that he was none the wiser as to the state of his form after tackling the course at a significantly reduced intensity.
"We didn’t go full out, obviously, because it was risky, so it’s hard to gauge anything about your condition from that," Nibali said. "We’ll just have to see day by day how I am."
On arriving in Marbella during the week, Nibali told his hosts that he knew nothing of the route of this year’s Vuelta and had no plans to learn more before the race began. The Sicilian simply smiled when asked about Sunday’s true beginning, which sees the peloton tackle a short, sharp summit finish at Caminito del Rey.
"Niente, I know nothing about it at all," he said, seemingly unconcerned by the prospect of such a stiff finale so soon in the race. "No, the Vuelta is always like that."
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