Vuelta’s opening stages leave mark on GC hopefuls

A number of riders expected to contend for the GC have fallen behind in the first three days of racing

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The opening three stages of the Vuelta a España have left an indelible mark on the overall classification.

Not only has the race lead changed three times in three days of explosive racing, but the red leader’s jersey is now in the hands of unlikely leader Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), who, at 41, becomes the oldest grand tour leader in cycling history.

Backed by a strong and motivated RadioShack team, Horner could carry the lead all the way into Andalucía for the Vuelta’s next major climbs looming next weekend.

The top challengers who were expected to be there — with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) — are all “there,” close in the GC and confirming their intentions of fighting for the overall victory.

But there are more than a handful of other contenders who have seen their GC stock plummet in the opening three days of racing.

Top among them is Sky’s Sergio Henao.

In what’s been a season of the Colombian revival, from Rigoberto Urán’s second place at the Giro d’Italia, to Carlos Betancur’s raid on the Ardennes classics, and Nairo Quintana’s arrival at the Tour de France, this Vuelta was supposed to be Henao’s coming out party.

Sky, which won the Tour de France with Chris Froome and took second at the Giro (Urán), gave the mantle of leadership to Henao.

Yet just three days into the 68th Vuelta, Henao’s GC hopes look dead in the water. Despite a strong team time trial, Henao slid backwards in Sunday’s stage 2, losing 2:41 in the final kilometers of the first-category summit. He lost 13 more seconds in Monday’s uphill dash, and starts Tuesday’s fourth stage in 44th place at 3:02 back.

“It was a surprise to lose time with Sergio,” said Sky sport director Marcus Ljungqvist. “We didn’t expect it to happen. It was a bad day. It’s still early in the race, and we will look for opportunities to take back the time.”

Henao, 25, came to the Vuelta as Sky’s undisputed leader, though Urán quickly left no doubt that he was also here to ride his own race.

And just as fast, the weight of Sky’s GC hopes falls on Urán, who skipped the Tour de France after his Giro performance. After a stint back in Colombia, Urán — who will be moving to Omega Pharma-Quick Step for 2014 — returned to Europe to race the Tour of Poland.

And now, perhaps sooner than he expected, Urán is Sky’s best GC hope, as he’s currently seventh at 25 seconds adrift.

“We will see what we can do. It’s always better to have two riders than just one,” Urán said after Saturday’s team time trial. “The course suits me and Sergio. We can play two cards, and see what happens.”

Henao and Urán share an apartment in Pamplona, along with compatriot Quintana, but so far through this Vuelta, it appears it’s going to be every man for himself.

Other top riders have already ceded important time.

Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who came to the Vuelta talking about the podium, has some ground to make up. Cannondale did not have a great TT, and Basso was struggling in Sunday’s first-category summit finale. The veteran Italian starts Tuesday 29th at 1:29 back

David Arroyo (Caja Rural), second at the 2010 Giro to Basso, is already 42nd at 2:49 back.

Samuel Sánchez, leading Euskaltel-Euskadi in its final grand tour before the team folds, languishes nearly four minutes back after three stages. Teammate Igor Antón is even further adrift at more than five minutes slower.

“I didn’t expect to struggle as much as I did, but the explosivity of the pace was difficult to maintain,” Sánchez said. “We can still take something positive out of this Vuelta. Perhaps we can change the ‘chip’ and look for stage victories. The GC is clearly difficult.”

Things are even worse for Betancur, who rode to fifth at the Giro. He is currently in 176th place at more than 24 minutes back. Betancur lost contact in the team time trial and then got popped early in Sunday’s mountaintop finale.

“I will have to suffer in this Vuelta to prepare for the worlds,” Betancur said Saturday. “There are opportunities for a stage victory. There are many stages that look good for me.”

A few riders who expected to be higher include Rodríguez, 18th at 56 seconds back, and Bauke Mollema (Belkin), 16th at 52 seconds back. Both of those riders lost time in the TTT, but hope to recover it over the coming weeks.

“The Vuelta is just starting. Perhaps we lost more than expected in the team time trial, but I can hope to recover positions,” Rodríguez said. “The most important thing is to leave Galicia with the options intact.”

That’s certainly not going to be the case for more than a few riders.

The Vuelta leaves the sinuous and windy Galicia terrain Wednesday, riding east onto the northern meseta for a string of stages well suited for the sprinters and stage-hunters.

That will give everyone a chance to collect their breath after a wild opening to the 68th Vuelta.

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