After a week of what has effectively been some hard skirmishing for the overall favourites, the battle for the overall of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana moves up three or four notches in terms of intensity this weekend.
Two tough mountain stages, another major summit finish on Sunday and the one long time trial of the entire race on Monday make this a make-or-break 72 hours for the big favourites.
Although next weekend’s two days in Asturias, and in particular the Angliru, will all but decide the podium, these stages will see the GC weeding-out process start in earnest and Monday in particular represents Bradley Wiggins’ biggest and best chance to impact on the overall.
Talking to Cycling Weekly on Saturday morning before the start of the stage, the Sky leader looked to be in good shape. Currently 22nd overall at 1-26 on overall leader Sylvain Chavanel, the Briton is upbeat about his chances.
“I’m feeling really good, I was cruising on Sierra Nevada and even if today’s [Saturday's steep uphill] finish and the one in Valdepeñas de Jaén aren’t my cup of tea at all, it’s going well,” Wiggins, who has a 38×28 gear for today’s stage, said.
“I’m still a bit nervous on the descents when its full on” – as it was in Cordoba where Nibali and Liquigas attacked downhill – “and I still haven’t got my bottle back for them.”
“So for now it’s been limiting the losses so far, which isn’t ideal but it’s not lots in the grand scheme of things and in the big time trial I could take quite a lot out of them [his rivals].”
“It’s about finding a balance between limiting my losses and staying safe. Most of my losses were in the team time trial and if you’re looking at my goal of top six in Madrid – although the podium would be a dream – I’m well on for that.”
“Today [to El Escorial's steep uphill finish] is a pig but if I can limit my losses that’ll be ok and then tomorrow [Sunday] I’ll try to be in the front group.”
“When [Joaquin] Rodriguez (Katusha) goes for it, I can’t follow him but just limiting my losses is what I have to try to do. Either way, these next two days will really sort out the general classification a lot, and then Monday even more.”
Wiggins has his collarbone taped up, with the tape stretching half-way up his neck, but he says it’s nothing serious – just for extra support.
“It’s still not perfect, when I’m sprinting it’s a weak point. But at least I didn’t crash yesterday [Friday] in the bunch sprint, a lot of people went down. I was lucky.”
As for Monday’s 47-kilometre time trial in Salamanca, it will be a big test not just for the Vuelta, but also for the World Championships.
“I’ll go flat out, empty the tank. There’s two of the best time triallists in the world here [Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) and Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek)] and they’ve had less stress on them than I have because they’re not here for GC.”
“In fact, I think they’re only here for one real reason, and that’s the time trial.”
“I’d love to win it, but if I finish third to those guys and take a heap of time back overall, I’ll be happy. That’s the main goal.”
“In any case, I’ve been recovering well, getting over the heat well, and if I’m going to have a chance of winning the World Championships I’ve got to face those guys now as well.”
“It’s going to be a good test, and I believe I’m going to be close to them. There are a few factors coming in too, this has been the hardest Vuelta start a lot of guys have ever done and certainly for the first nine days with the heat and that, in comparison to the Giro and the Tour, it’s been a tough one.”
The first of two days in the mountains west of Madrid is already taking a big toll. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) quit after his injuries incurred in stage seven’s final kilometre crash proved too much to take and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who finished third in Talavera de la Reina, has also pulled out.
Vuelta a Espana 2011: Related links
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Vuelta a Espana 2011
: Stage reports
Stage seven: Kittel wins chaotic bunch sprint
Stage six: Sagan takes Vuelta stage win in controversial circumstances
Stage five: Rodriguez takes second win for Katusha but Chavanel holds on
Stage four: Moreno wins first mountain skirmish at Sierra Nevada
Stage three: Lastras solos to stage and takes red jersey
Stage two: Sutton grabs stage win to set things right for Sky
Stage one: Leopard-Trek win opening TTT to put Fuglsang in front
Vuelta a Espana 2011: Photo galleries
By Graham Watson
Stage seven photo gallery
Stage six photo gallery
Stage five photo gallery
Stage four photo gallery
Stage three photo gallery
Stage two photo gallery
Stage one photo gallery
Vuelta a Espana 2011: TV guide
Vuelta a Espana 2011: ITV4 TV schedule
Vuelta a Espana 2011: British Eurosport TV schedule
ITV to show 2011 Vuelta