Velits wins as Rodriguez finds flat time trial an uphill struggle

With less than a minute between the top three riders – and less than five minutes separating first from tenth – the Vuelta a España‘s sole individual time-trial, a 46-kilometre loop around the city of Peñafiel, always had the potential for a major shake-up at the top of the general classification. But no one quite expected an outcome as dramatic as this, with HTC-Columbia‘s Peter Velits unexpectedly winning the stage and race leader Joaquim Rodriguez tumbling dramatically down the order and out of overall contention.

On a flat course with few corners, today’s stage was always likely to favour smooth, aerodynamic riders over punchy bike handlers. As FDJ‘s Christophe Le Mevel said before the stage:

It’s 100% flat. We go out, we come back, so it’s 99.9% certain the win is going to go to Fabian Cancellara.

Unsurprisingly Cancellara, wearing the rainbow colours of the world time trial champion, set the early benchmark with a time of 53:20. With the wind picking up as the afternoon wore on, Le Mevel’s prediction started to look increasingly accurate. So it was no small surprise when two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov put a forgettable race behind him, catching the two riders who had started ahead of him within sight of the finish line to not only beat Cancellara, but do so by a massive 25 seconds.

Stage 17 winner Peter Velits (image courtesy of Cycling Weekly/Graham Watson)

But an even bigger shock was to come as Velits, sixth at the start of the day, stopped the watch at a stunning 52:43 – 12 seconds quicker than Menchov and 37 ahead of Cancellara – to lower the benchmark to a level which none of the top five could get within 1:55 of.

The drama was far from over, however. Nicolas Roche and Fränk Schleck, fifth and fourth overnight, posted middling times. Ezequiel Mosquera put in a strong ride, finishing 19th on the day, 2:13 off Velits’ time. Then Vincenzo Nibali came home 18 seconds faster than Mosquera despite puncturing mid-stage, widening the gap between the two to 39 seconds.

There then followed an agonisingly long wait for the red jersey of Rodriguez to arrive. The Spaniard, by his own admission not at his most comfortable in a time trial situation and looking distinctly awkward on his bike throughout, dropped time consistently over the whole course and could only finish 105th, over six minutes slower than Velits. As a consequence, Rodriguez dropped from first to fifth, 3:45 behind Nibali, and he has now had to readjust his aspirations from the overall win to trying to snatch a podium place:

I knew when I went out on the course today it was going to be a hard day. I thought I would lose three or four minutes, so to lose six minutes was more than I thought. Maybe the victory now is complicated, but I can still fight for the podium. Bola del Mundo is so hard. Who knows what will happen?

To say the 25-year old Velits’ win came out of the blue would be an understatement. His most notable career result to date had been a second-place finish on the opening stage of this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné and, despite his high overall placing, you could have obtained extremely long odds on him claiming victory here. Even the Slovakian himself seemed surprised at his own performance:

This is my first time trial victory. It’s unbelievable that it happens at the Tour of Spain. I can’t describe it. To beat Cancellara who is the absolute top time trial rider makes it even more of a surprise.

He is now third overall, exactly two minutes behind Nibali, and a solid ride on Saturday’s final mountain stage should see him earn an extraordinary podium finish.

In summary, here is how the top 10 riders in the GC before the time trial performed:

1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 105th, +6:12 behind Velits

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 15th, +1:55

3. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) 19th, +2:13

4. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) 51st, +3:55

5. Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) 38th, +3:29

6. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) Stage winner

8. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) 14th, +1:53

9. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) 11th, +1:29

10. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) 13th, +1:47

Despite the massive shake-up, the top ten remains as tight as before, with just 29 seconds separating fourth from ninth, and Nibali knowing his 39-second advantage over Mosquera will come under heavy attack on the long, hard Bola del Mundo climb which concludes Saturday’s penultimate stage. It should make for some spectacular racing, with Mosquera and several others likely to commit to one final roll of the dice to try to improve their positions.

Before that, though, we have two flat stages to bring the sprinters back to the fore – with Mark Cavendish looking to consolidate his lead in the points competition.

Stage 17 result:

1. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) 52:43

2. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +0:12

3. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) +0:37

4. Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank) +0:50

5. Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +1:03

General classification:

1. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 71:19:49

2. Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) +0:39

3. Peter Velits (HTC-Columbia) +2:00

4. Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank) +3:44

5. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +3:45

6. Xavier Tondó (Cervelo) +3:45

7. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) +3:55

8. Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) +4:03

9. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) +4:13

10. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +5:43

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 111 pts

2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 93

3. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) 90

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 89

5. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 75

Mountains classification:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 48 pts

2. Serafín Martínez (Xacobeo Galicia) 38

3. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) 25

4. Gonzalo Rabuñal (Xacobeo Galicia) 25

5. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Eusakdi) 21

For up-to-the-minute news, results and analysis of the race, visit either the official Vuelta website or the always excellent


Fantasy football rounds 5 & 6: A question of rotation

We are a month into the fantasy football season, and by now you will hopefully have a settled squad which you are happy with. So now you can sit back and relax, right? Sadly not. This week I want to have a look at the tricky subject of squad rotation, and how you can stay one step ahead of the game.

It has been a relatively sedate start to the season for the Premier League clubs thus far, with just four league games played in the five weekends so far, an international break and (for teams not participating in European competition) the Carling Cup second round.

But we are now entering one of the busiest stretches of the year, where the top clubs face a relentless calendar of two-a-week fixtures which will stretch their resources to the limit. For instance, here is Arsenal‘s schedule over the next two months, which in theory could see the likes of Cesc Fabregas called on to play 17 games in 61 days:

Today: Braga (H), Champions League

Sat 18/9: Sunderland (A)

Tue 21/9: Tottenham (A), Carling Cup

Sat 25/9: West Brom (H)

Tue 28/9: Partizan Belgrade (A), Champions League

Sun 3/10: Chelsea (A)

Fri 8/10: Euro 2012 qualifiers

Tue 12/10: Euro 2012 qualifiers

Sat 16/10: Birmingham (H)

Tue 19/10: Shakhtar Donetsk (H), Champions League

Sun 24/10: Man City (A)

w/c 25/10: Carling Cup 4th round

Sat 30/10: West Ham (H)

Wed 3/11: Shakhtar Donetsk (A), Champions League

Sun 7/11: Newcastle (H)

Wed 10/11: Wolves (A)

Sun 14/11: Everton (A)

The other English clubs still involved in Europe – Chelsea, Man Utd, Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool – face similar schedules, with Champions League and Europa League games providing a regular diet of midweek fixtures and occasional long flights to distant away matches.

Clearly, given the gruelling physical nature of modern football, it is virtually impossible for a player to play every minute of every match, particularly during such a hectic time of the season. Which is why most of the bigger clubs will routinely rotate their squads during this part of the season, giving first team players the odd game off to minimise their risk of injury and keep them fresh for later in the season. (And it is why the bigger teams generally field an entire second-string side in the Carling Cup.)

Bacary Sagna - frequently rested?

The process of squad rotation has already begun, with a number of managers choosing to rest players who had been heavily involved in international double-headers the previous week. Arsène Wenger, for instance, opted to put the French trio of Bacary Sagna, Gaël Clichy and Abou Diaby on the bench against Bolton on Saturday, while Carlo Ancelotti did the same with Florent Malouda.

It is well worth getting to know the practices of the top teams better. You can start by having a quick read of the team sheets from last weekend’s games to get a feel for which managers are particularly active in rotating their starters, and which players are more likely to be rested on occasion.

For instance, Arsenal fans will know that injury-prone midfielder Tomáš Rosický rarely starts back-to-back weekend and weekday games; if he starts in the Champions League tonight, odds are he will be on the bench for the trip to Sunderland on Saturday. Last season Sagna was frequently rested, with Emmanuel Eboue regularly deputising at right back. Even captain and creative fulcrum Fabregas was occasionally benched for ‘easier’ games. But Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas (now with Spurs) generally played every game.

Frank Lampard - ever-present?

Similarly, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, when fit, are generally immovable fixtures in any Chelsea line-up, but the in-form Malouda – he played only the final six minutes last weekend, annoying thousands of fantasy managers (like me!) who were denied the use of a higher scoring substitute.

Such considerations should play a role in your own transfers and squad selections over the next few weeks. They should not stop you from picking a player from a top team, but you should at least think twice before doing so. And now, more than perhaps any other time of the season, you should be looking for players from middle and lower-ranking sides who do not have to bear the burden of regular midweek games. Given the choice between two players from, say, Man City and Everton of similar costs with similar point-scoring prospects, consider whether one is more likely than the other to start every Premier League match over the coming weeks. All other things being equal, you should really think hard about going for the player from the squad with the less busy schedule.

At the very least, you should have a fully-stocked substitutes’ bench to ensure you can always field a team of eleven on any given weekend. It is at this time of the season when those cheap players you bought from Blackpool, West Brom and Wigan start to play a valuable role in keeping your points total ticking over. Those extra few points every week soon start to add up.

You still won’t get me stuffing my squad full of West Ham players any time soon, though.

There will be no fantasy football tips next week, as I am on holiday. Normal service will be resumed the following week.

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