The day of judgment had arrived, in the guise of the post-rest day individual time trial. The course rolled across 38.7km of Castilian landscape, in a loop from and to Burgos in northern Spain. With several stretches of ascent and some very tight corners in the final section of the course, it was an atypical day of time trialling for the riders, but one which still favoured the specialists. And in this tour, that meant Tom Dumoulin.
At the start of the stage Dumoulin was in fourth overall, 1.51 behind Rodriguez and almost the same behind Aru; Majka was leading him in third by only 16 seconds. After the departure of Froome in the second week, all eyes were on Dumoulin to do something extraordinary in the time trial. Losing less ground than expected in the climbers’ stages, today would be a defining hour for the Netherlander, a test to see what he still had left in the legs after three difficult days in the mountains.
The early times posted at the finish hovered just below the fifty minute mark, proving that the inclines and corners of the course couldn’t keep the pace below 45kmph. The first key marker, though, was set in place by Tinkoff’s Maciej Bodnar. Only the 18th (of 167) rider to start today, he posted the best time by several minutes at 47.05. It would stand for most of the day, with strong rouleurs like Vasil Kiryienka and Steve Cummings failing to match his speed. But the best was yet to come.
Jérôme Coppel, the French time trial champion, posted a solid time at the first checkpoint but faltered in the second half, and came in thirty seconds off Bodnar’s pace. The same fate awaited the Portuguese champion Nelson Oliveira, though he’s no doubt still riding on a high from his stage 13 victory. As the favourites began to hit the rollers, awaiting their turn to take to the course, black clouds began to roll in ominously. As a light drizzle pattered down, Dumoulin, Aru, Majka, and Rodriguez got their TTs underway.
Dumoulin quickly found his near-perfect position, turning a massive gear with efficiency and with barely perceptible lateral movement. Comparatively, Aru and Rodriguez looked to be rocking in the wind. Dumoulin bettered Oliveira’s time at the first checkpoint by 9 seconds, smoothly and steadily pushing into the wind. Majka, by distinction, was already losing G.C. placement, passing the first checkpoint a minute slower than Dumoulin. Rodriguez was slower still, at 1.11 off the pace.
Those gaps just continued to grow as Dumoulin set about hurtling himself up the rolling hills (amidst a sea of anti-fracking placards at one point) and throwing himself down the mellow declines for the remainder of the course. He was chasing a red jersey and a second stage win, broadening his wins from mountain peaks to individual time trial. But there was still time for a few surprises. Valverde, when he finished, posted the second to best time after Bodnar. It was not to remain second, but was yet an astounding performance from the fatigued Spaniard.
Sure enough though, Dumoulin came in at an unbeatable rate, stopping the clock at a scarcely believable 46.01, the only rider who would get below 47 minutes, and it was by nearly a whole minute. Majka managed 48.39, Aru 47.53, and Rodriguez a disappointing 49.06. This means that Dumoulin now leads Aru by a scant 3 seconds in the overall classification. It was over a minute more back to Rodriguez in third.
What remains for this Vuelta? Well, plenty. We are in for two more difficult and long descents which lead into stage finishes, and a finish on a plateau atop a category 2 climb, before the final sprint stage into Madrid. It’s not the absolute ideal terrain for strong attacks, but with a not insurmountable gap of only three seconds for Aru, you can bet Astana will be driving a ferocious pace on the climbs, attacking on the descents, and doing all they can to set up Aru for a stage win and for precious bonus seconds. We also have to wonder what Dumoulin has left in the bank; has he saved anything for the final few undulating stages before Madrid, or is he in risk of going into deficit from now onwards? This race really could go either way from this point on. Truly the most gripping grand tour of the year.