The last of cycling’s 2015 Grand Tours, the Vuelta a Espana, began last Saturday with a 7.4km team time trial stage from Puerto Banus to Marbella. Grand Tours usually begin with a short prologue time trial, normally on an individual basis, in order to determine who wears the leader’s jersey for the first stage proper, but a rider’s time is also recorded for general classification (GC) purposes.
A significant development in Saturday’s team time trial was that after safety concerns were raised by some teams and riders (see account here by Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche), it was agreed that a rider’s recorded time would not contribute to his overall GC time. In effect, the time trial became a training spin. All that was left to be decided was the identity of the rider who would wear the race leader’s red jersey, which would be awarded to the rider that was first over the finish line for the fastest team. All team members are awarded the time of the fifth team member crossing the finish line.
The interesting aspect was how teams and individuals would react to this decision. As outlined after the stage by Nicolas Roche, teams with contenders for the overall GC title tended to be more cautious, while other teams may have been willing to take risks in order to achieve a rare stage win and generate some publicity for their team and sponsors. Team BMC, the world team time trial champions, won the stage in 8.10 at an average speed of 54.4km/h, though their main GC contender, Tejay van Garderen, was not one of its leading five members. In contrast, the teams with the main GC contenders were further behind, with Movistar (Valverde and Quintana) 24 seconds down in 9th and Team Sky (Froome) over a minute down in 20th place.
One can easily contrast these results to that of the 9th stage of this year’s Tour de France which was also a team time trial but over 28km, and where times did contribute to GC placing. BMC also won this, but with only one second to spare over Sky, and four seconds ahead of Movistar. Given this, it seems fairly clear that Sky and Movistar felt that any benefit from wining Saturday’s stage was not enough to compensate from any possible cost by possibly crashing. Indeed, as Nicolas Roche pointed out, “...we all agreed that it wasn’t worth taking the risk of riding full gas and somebody crashing out and possibly leaving Froomey short on help if he needed it later on in the race.”
For those of us that are regular cyclists, it is notable that while Sky took it easy, and even allowing for the closed circuit, they still managed an average speed of 48km/h.