Four seconds. That is all that separates Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) after a tough mountain stage where Nibali moved off the front in an early attack and snatched a time bonus, then tried his luck again on a descent of the dangerous Ancares climb.
Nibali later revealed he'd been worried of a repeat of the scenario in last year's Giro where a mass break mid-way through the race had unexpectedly gained a large amount of time. Movistar's David Arroyo took the lead as a result and unexpectedly hung on to second overall, a performance that edged Nibali down a spot into third.
"I saw four Leopards going up the road and that was enough, I thought I'd better stay ahead," Nibali said later.
"Once I was in the break, my director radioed through and told me I might as well go for a time bonus."
Although that early move was re-absorbed, Nibali then broke away on a descent with little-known Swedish contender, Frederik Kessiakoff (Astana) and another seven riders. The move didn't work out, but it forced Sky to work hard behind.
"That wasn't actually my idea, it was Kessiakoff," Nibali said later. "When he'd gone, I thought I'd better follow. But it was a long way from the finish."
Wiggins said he was pleased to be in the lead after a tough day, but was realistic about his chances of holding on with such a slender advantage.
"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Wiggins told Cycling Weekly. "I feel good, and I'll give it everything, but this is it."
"I'm not going to start stressing about defending such a tiny lead over eight days."
"And I'm sure the mountain stages will decide a lot, too."
He didn't rule out riding threshold again on tomorrow's final climb, just as he has done to such devastating effect on the previous long, steady mountain top finishes.
"Maybe... maybe, but the guys are strong and it's going to take a lot to get rid of them. The time bonuses don't help either... but they're part of bike racing. "
But Wiggins is still in the lead and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha), for one, has nothing but praise for his climbing abilities, saying "I didn't see Bradley suffer even once on today's mountains. And that was really impressive."
Vuelta a Espana 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
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