Bradley Wiggins’ first full stage in the red jersey as leader of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana on Thursday was marked by a tricky bunch sprint at the end of a hard day’s racing.
As Wiggins pointed out as he rode towards the team bus in Pontevedra after the finish, the stage was anything but flat, and the draggy uphill sprint was just the sort of terrain where the bunch would split.
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After unofficial times made it clear there had been some splits on the short rise to the finishing straight, but not exactly what they were, an hour later it was finally announced that the front group of 15 [containing Swedish rival Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana)] had gained four seconds on Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), with Wiggins, Chris Froome (Sky) and all the other main contenders at five.
“The guys looked after me perfectly, I was sat behind (Sky team-mate) Dario [Cioni] most of the day, and Ian [Stannard] is brilliant at stuff like that, placing himself,” Wiggins told Cycling Weekly.
“I was sixth wheel a lot of the time, because further down the pack, you’d risk getting swamped.”
Asked if they had worked for Chris Sutton, Sky’s sprint winner of stage two, Wiggins said “we did and we didn’t.”
“We can’t chase everything, and we thought if it came back to a sprint Chris would have a go.”
“But it certainly wasn’t going to be at the expense of riding all day on the front.”
Overall, Wiggins said it was looking good.
“I’m confident, I’m back in shape, I was a bit ring rusty on those really steep climbs [early in the race] but in the last couple of mountain days I’ve felt a lot more comfortable.”
“But I don’t want to get too excited. I’ve learned that. I’m taking it on the day by day.”
Certainly the next three days will be a big test for Wiggins, kicking off with two first category climbs, one of them the notorious Puerto de Ancares – with several segments at more than 12 percent – mid-way through a short (158 kms) but punishing stage on Friday.
The last climb, though, a third category, is more than 40 kilometres from the finish, so it could even end up with a small group sprint.
Saturday and Sunday, though, are full-on mountain top finishes, with the Angliru – by far the toughest single ascent in Spain and if it rains, as is forecast, then even tougher – as the climb that could decide the entire race.