Vuelta a Espana: Team Sky aiming for top-three in opening-day TTT
DS Gabriel Rasch predicts tight contest in Nimes
Team Sky are aiming for a top-three result at the very least in the Vuelta a España's opening team time trial, which the British squad won last year in Galicia by the narrowest of margins over Movistar.
In 2016 time differences between Sky and Movistar were inside a second, with the British team finally taking the win and Peter Kennaugh becoming the first leader of the race.
This year's team time trial, though, is a very different kettle of fish to both 2015's controversial 7.4-kilometre opening sprint along the beachside in Marbella, and 2016's much longer, more technical, 27.8km course in the remote rural reaches of southern Galicia. This time, instead, the TTT is a relentlessly urban course and, at 13.7km, just under half the length.
"We want the top-three for sure and we are definitely prepared for it," Gabriel Rasch, Team Sky sports director at the Vuelta, told Cyclingnews on Friday. "We've been over the course twice already, it's very technical so it's definitely a bit more difficult for us to win, but I don't think there will be big time differences between the favourites."
Other top contenders for the opening stage are difficult to predict on such a short, technical course, which has a small climb mid-way through and is mostly run through city centre streets.
Visually, the high point will likely be when the teams thunder through the Roman amphitheatre, built in the first century AD, where yesterday's teams presentation was held, but the race will probably be won or lost on the marginally straighter final three or four kilometres.
Squads present on the Vuelta with a well-honed tradition of team time trial success in Grand Tours include Astana - winners of the Vuelta's opening TTT in 2013 - BMC Racing Team, Movistar, and Orica-Scott. Looking at last year's results and other TTT results, Quick Step Floors and LottoNL-Jumbo could well be in the mix, too. But on such a short course, it is difficult to predict.
Looking ahead, Rasch argues that Sunday's stage, which runs through exposed terrain across the flatlands of southern France could be an equally or perhaps bigger challenge to the GC contenders, with Sky's Chris Froome the bookmakers' favourite ahead of the race.
"It's windy, open, there are narrow streets at times and there could be a lot of public," Rasch commented. "They may not win the Vuelta here, but for sure somebody could lose it."
"Andorra [stage 3] is the first mountain test, then the first week is going to be hectic and very nervous. Then in the second week, there are are almost no stages where you can relax even a little."
Overall, Rasch concludes: "We have to be on top of our game for all three weeks. The goal is to win, Chris is really up for it and he's really motivated."
Cyclingnews will have full live coverage of the Vuelta's opening team time trial, starting at 16.30 CET. For the full list of start times, click here.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.